Yes, I know the title is puzzling, but there really is no exact translation for the Spanish concept of Belenes Navideños. “Christmas Bethlehems” (the literal translation) just doesn’t sound right somehow. However the name is usually shortened just to belenes, with a small ‘B’, and this is the name given to beautiful displays of whole miniature Bethlehem village scenes, with of course the main focus being the brightly lit little stable where figures of Mary and Joseph gaze at the Christ Child lying in the manger. What we would call ‘a crib’ in English (a nacimiento in Spanish) containing just the main figures of the Holy Family (perhaps including an angel or a shepherd or two) also fill odd shop windows and squares, but it is the whole Christmas story depicted in the belenes that take the limelight.
Some of them are real works of art, full of amazing details that fascinate young and old onlookers alike, having required hours of meticulous and dedicated skill to set up beforehand, and can be found in every town and city in Spain. Granada boasts some of the country’s best displays, and it is a joyful outing every year during the Advent and Christmas period for families to muffle up against the cold (for the temperatures in Granada after dark often drop to below zero) and walk round the gaily decorated city centre, with piped carol music floating out from loudspeakers, while visiting “belenes”. These Christmas festivities only come to an end on the day after the great Feast of the Epiphany.
It is really quite surprising what you can find in the Bethlehem scenes; some of the figures sit weaving, pealing beans; others will be energetically chopping wood, or pounding grain to make bread. Or you might just see two neighbours having a good old chinwag by the village well. I remember seeing one where a woman had her young son sprawled over her legs whilst she was giving him a good spanking on his bared backside; I wondered what mischief the little boy must have got up to to deserve such punishment!
There is usually quite a lot going on in the outskirts of the Bethlehem scene too. Some will show the wicked Herod dripping gold and surrounded by luxuries, while feasting in his mansion as dancing girls sway in erotic postures for his entertainment! Then suddenly, after watching all the ordinary village events, you might be reminded that something very special just might have happened in the little town of Bethlehem somewhere, by noticing strong camels being fitted out for their coming journey with the Magi (known as los reyes magos in Spain)… though presumably this is meant to be happening way beyond the frontiers of Bethlehem.
If the belen happens to be displayed in a long passage somewhere, like one I visited set round an inner courtyard, you have to walk all the way round watching the Bethlehem villagers going about their business in total oblivion of the miraculous event of that holy night in their midst, before you come to the humble stable where you will find the Holy Family in simple poverty. This is where some families will stop and make the sign of the cross, and some mothers urge their children to say a little prayer or blow a kiss to the Holy Baby Jesus lying in His manger.
But why not show just the crib? What can be the meaning of showing a whole town going about its mundane occupations while the Son of God lies there in obscurity? I have often pondered that great mystery, because that must have been exactly the way it really happened. The shepherds would have gone into the town to alert the townsfolk of the wondrous news the angels had given them… But how many will have listened? How many will have believed them and gone to see for themselves the Holy Babe in such a humble dwelling? Not many I think. And the same happens in our own day and age; only a few will go to look for Him, to kneel and offer Him their lives in loving obedience and trust. Nothing has changed in 2000 years.
It is very moving that in this secular world, these old traditions and customs still persist. They are a living proof of the ancient Christian heritage of Spain, and indeed of all Europe. We must pray and plead with the Holy Family to help us be faithful Catholics and that these traditions will always remain with us to remind us that Our Blessed Lord was born among us in Bethlehem.