OK, so you know what a belén is, but it took me years to realise that Belén is how the Spanish say Bethlehem, as in ‘O Little Town of’. I had always assumed that it just meant ‘Christmas crib’ or ‘Nativity Scene’ – which, of course, it does. Neither translation, however, does justice to the fabulous folk art of recreating the entire village of Bethlehem and its environs out of bits of twig and sand and silver foil and stones and seeds and bark and legions of tacky plastic nativity figures from the Chinese shop (100-peseta shops of old).
I was invited to my brother-in-law’s belén-building morning a couple of weeks ago and I swear the adults had even more fun than the kids, although the plentiful supply of freshly-slithered ham, cured Manchego and full-bodied Rioja also played its part. One inspired addition to this year’s model was a ‘field’ of crops – grown from lentils and soybeans planted and watered in cotton wool!
Originally a Neapolitan traditional, the belén was introduced to Spain in the 18th Century by Maria Amalia de Sajona, the first wife of Carlos III.