Casa Rosales

Casa Rosales

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Nativity, Belen and Chocolate

The trial of Father Christmas - 1686

Sadly, Spain has now capitulated to Santa Claus and the commercially-driven Christmas of other European and Western World cultures despite having no historic background for this.
And as I say this, I do realise that Santa Claus's past is not exactly a clear-cut and murk-free story for those of us who have known him all our lives! 

However, I really hate the purely materialistic portrayal here, demonstrated in the life-size plastic Santas that can be seen climbing up a ladder (I ask you!) onto balconies of the many apartments around here and the rest of Spain - more in Valladolid than I've seen around here.
No sense of 'Ho, Ho, Ho' or the kindly, twinkling-eyed old man who watches at all times the behaviour of (us and) our children.
And as Christmas Eve is the most important family time here in Spain and the eating and drinking goes on til the early hours, there is no way that children would be tucked up in bed when Santa made his secret visit down the chimney - so not sure how the magic can possibly be created such as that I remember as a child myself.

But a tradition that is prevalent in both the north and the south of Spain, (as well as in many other European countries,) is the Belén. I had a very precious Christmas ornament myself that came out every year, of a small stable with a high, pointed roof, above which was balanced a star; inside there was a tiny Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus in a mini manger. I expect my mother still has this - I hope so. But the nativity scene here is often on an altogether larger scale.

Belén is the Spanish word for Bethlehem though I do suspect that many people here will not make that connection as the Belén is synonymous in their minds with the often very elaborate and beautiful nativity scenes that adorn most houses, many shop fronts, town halls and often whole villages during the Christmas period. I haven't visited a life recreation of the Belén though I saw one on the television last year based in the beautiful, mediaeval village of Santillana del Mar in Cantabria. The whole village was involved and it was most impressive though I suspect they must have been feeling rather chilly. There are similar scenes set in various villages across the country.

Here in Andalucia, a famous Belén is created every year by a biscuit factory in the village of Rute - about an hour's drive from our home, just across the border into Cordoba. It is made entirely of chocolate - mere 1450kg of it - and takes a number of chocolatiers around four months to create.

Of course we went to see it! The photos do not do it justice and neither could I capture the smell!


Stunning work. I found myself hugely impressed at the workmanship and attention to detail.

But then found myself thinking 'WHY'??? Bizarrely, the setting was Malaga, which sort of backs up my point about the word 'belen'. To me, the scene would have worked much better if it was delivered as such - an historical recreation of the town of Malaga in chocolate. It seemed a bit pointless having the little stable, with its important visitor, down by the old fishing port. But maybe I'm missing the point.....or expecting one where there is none.

Obviously, the whole point was to draw huge crowds to the biscuit factory. However, the attached shop had none of the skilled artesan work available - frankly, what they sold in the shops was most unappetising and unappealing. I had hoped for something different but it was just more of the same - the stuff you can buy in a supermarket only more expensive. Shame.

But an experience.

What hit the spot for me was the Hansel and Gretel 'gingerbread' house that had been made last year - with a mere 450kgs of chocolate - and which seemed a more appropriate subject!

And I think it was this that inspired me to come home and make some chocolates myself. I made a delicious rocky road with marshmallows, cranberries, raisins, some crunched up digestive biscuits and a little real orange for more depth of flavour, topped off with a sprinkling of icing sugar.

For the charming Belen created by my mother-in-law and my children, take a look at Mateo's photos from last Christmas.


  1. That is pretty amazing! But I share your sentiments about the over commercialisation of Christmas. I love to see Christmas lights, but I've taken to steering clear of the local towns in December, everything is so brash. Our village square, with it's few trees weighed down by simple strings of white lights, is the perfect antidote :D

  2. I love it Annie... and the combination of vague connections with biblical scenes, commercialism and local stuff make it all the more interesting. My first job when I got back from France yesterday was to set up my nativity scene....a stable and santons collected over a couple of decades of trips to France. I love mixing the 19th century French peasant images with Mary and Joseph....Baby Jesus remains in a drawer until Christmas eve, and then miraculously appears. This always used to delight Jessie. I just wish I could craft chocolate figures to join them.....I think I might work on developing a white chocolate Angel Gabriel(and then it can be consumed by the grandchildren on Christmas day).
    As always, great photos Annie, and a magical description of the visit.

  3. Janice - I think a white chocolate angel is a wonderful idea. I would use a piping bag and pipe a circle for the head; a long, triangle for the body/dress and then add two curved triangle wings. If the chocolate is nice and thick, this should hold together quite well. Might give it a try myself, though my speciality is the chocolate christmas tree lolly!

  4. Annie - I love the simple decorations best too. Here in Alcala, the lights are up but not yet on, so it doesn't feel too 'in yer face' - the run up to Christmas is quite laid back, but then we are in deepest Andalucia and I know it won't hot up until the Kings are due to arrive on 6th January. Then there will be processions in the streets!

  5. What a gorgeous post (and the link) Annie. This really reminds me that you live in a very different cloture from me, even if it's starting to succumb to other influences.

    I wonder whether the obscure little Nativity scene almost hidden among the chocolate townscape is a reminder that the significance of Bethlehem is for where and when we are today and not just something long ago?

  6. Oops! That should be CULTURE. :-)

  7. Nice thought, Perpetua - I'd like to think it were a conscious one on the part of the designers. Most of the Catholics in Spain really do think Christ spoke Spanish. :-) I'm not religious as you know but feel that the Catholic religion here smacks more of superstition than spirituality and is very much about the Spanish.

  8. Very inspiring post Annie! And very inspiring reminder from Perpetua that the Nativity is a universal thing and not just related to a certain time in the Middle East. In fact, I am so inspired that I'm going to write a blog about it. I started writing so much here that I finally thought, "Hita, this is Annie's blog, don't use up all her space drivvling on about archetypes when you have your own room to play in! I get a bit carried away when I'm tired I'm afraid. So I have got rid of half of what i was going to say to you and it will appear within the confining walls of my own blogspot : )

    I loved seeing the nativity in chocolate and marzipan; a first for me. Maybe I'm in the wrong country... The French don't seem to share my passion for marzipan. Sadly, the nativity they have put together here is not in chocolate but in plaster, but it is very distinctive and I will take some photos. Sorry for cribbing your idea Annie!

    What a gorgeous nativity scene you created for yourselves : ) I really love the triceratops! Another example of the universality of the Nativity...

  9. Dear Hita - you make me laugh! I know exactly what you mean! I am so looking forward to your next blog and seeing what you removed from your comment box! (And don't be silly - my space is your space!) I have done it myself on other blogs which is why I laughed so much. It's enthusiasm and I'm very flattered!
    And yes, if it's marzipan you crave, come to Spain - it's everywhere at this time of year. I have to resist because I love the chocolate and the turron as well and so much sugar can't be good for anyone.
    I'm glad to say there is very little 'hype' here in Alcala though I'm suddenly quite shocked that Christmas is so near and I'm not 'ready'.

  10. Wow Annie - some really intricate work there. I'll just have to imagine the smell of chocolate - not that difficult.
    Christmas here means Glasgow city centre has set up its ice rink in the square with supporting Christmas tree and some international Christmas market stalls.
    I'll be going to a carol concert before Christmas which at least will allow some sense of nativity to break through the commercialism.


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