what is a Belen?

Spanish Christmas Traditions: What is a Belén?

As the Christmas season approaches, you’re sure to come across one of the most beloved festive traditions in Spain – the Belén. These popular nativity scenes can be found in most towns and villages and are one of our favourite parts of Christmas in Spain.

If you’ve never visited a Belén before, or would just like to know more about their history, read on for more information as well as some photos we have taken over the last few years…

What is a Belén?

Meaning ‘Bethlehem’ in English, a Belén is a nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus, and includes figures of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, and various animals such as donkeys, sheep, and cows. You’ll also find figures of the Wise Men as well as many other characters. The scene is often set in a Bethlehem-style stable, complete with straw on the ground and a star above.

Some of the bigger towns and cities will have very elaborate Belénes depicting other scenes from the Bible, and including water features, lights, moving figures and more.

The History of the Belén

The tradition of Belénes dates back to the 13th century, when St. Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene in Italy. The custom quickly spread throughout the rest of Europe, and by the 16th century Belénes could be found in Spain. Over time, the nativity scenes became more elaborate, with figures of village people, shepherds, and angels also included.

Where to see Belénes

Belénes can be found throughout Spain, usually in churches and cathedrals, plazas or museums, but also often in homes.

Some of the most impressive Belénes can be seen at the Belén Museum in Madrid, which houses an extensive collection of figures and scenes from all over the world. Other popular places to see Belénes include cathedrals and churches such as the Cathedral of Seville, which has one of the largest nativity scenes in the world.

The Museo Del Belén De Lorca has a very elaborate nativity scene which is located inside the oldest surviving Christian building in Lorca.

One of our favourite local Belénes is in Torrevieja, located in the Plaza de la Constitucion. This large nativity scene is very detailed and includes local elements such as the salt mountains.

Look out for El Caganer!

Originating in Catalan but spreading to other areas of the country, El Caganer or “the pooper” is a figurine hidden in the nativity scene. El Caganer is depicted as a peasant, often wearing the traditional Catalan red cap called la barretina, with his trousers down, showing a bare backside, and defecating. Always fun to try and spot if you have children with you – or even if you don’t!

The Belén is a cherished Christmas tradition in Spain, and offers visitors a unique glimpse into the country’s rich history and culture. Whether you’re a local or a tourist, taking the time to see a Belén is a must during the Christmas season.

If you have spent time in Spain at Christmas before, do you have a favourite Belén to recommend?

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