How would Gabriel have celebrated Christmas?
The answer is hardly at all! His mother might have saved up to buy something special to eat on Christmas Eve; but, during Gabriel’s ‘fifties and ‘sixties childhood, there would have been no tree, no Santa, no gifts. In Spain, the only Christmas decorations were nativity scenes, and children’s gifts arrived on the morning of January sixth, delivered overnight by the three Kings on their camels – unless, like Gabriel, their mother was widowed and desperately poor.
On Christmas Eve, Gabriel’s family might have gone to a special mass, and they would probably have gone into the village earlier to admire the town hall’s nativity scene. This might have been a tableau of life-size figures of Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus, with or without an animal or shepherd or two, or it might have been a miniature scene with ceramic figurines.
During December, these Belén (Spanish for Bethlehem) scenes are set up in Spanish homes, shop windows and public places. They may be small and simple or huge with hills and farms, trees, houses, King Herod’s palace and soldiers, streams with bridges, waterwheels and women doing their washing, peasants working in the fields, et cetera, et cetera … And always, of course, the stable with the holy family.
The inclusion of a caganer, or pooper, into the scene is a Catalan custom now popular throughout Spain that strikes many foreigners as irreligious. These figures and their little piles of poop were originally farmers squatting in the field, and supposed to represent fertility. Companies that specialise in making Belén figurines bring out new caganers every year. Many famous people have been immortalised in this private act, including Barack Obama, the Pope, Spanish and British royalty, Michael Jackson…
So, if you’re lucky enough to be in Spain around Christmas time, don’t just admire the Beléns, try to find the caganers! You might even recognise one.