by Chris Chaplow and Fiona Flores Watson
One of the most delightful features of Christmas in Andalucia are the belenes vivientes, or living (live) nativity scenes, where many of the townsfolk dress up as characters to take part, using the town's streets, houses and plazas as their stage set, starring alongside four-legged actors - sheep and donkeys. Cadiz province is famous for its belenes vivientes.
The dates vary from place to place, but they usually run from the first week in December (the Puente de la Inmaculada) to the first days of January (Reyes Magos). They usually operate from about five in the afternoon up to eleven at night - some are one day only, while others open at weekends and holidays.
Belenes vivientes are ideal for children and families, with locals of all ages dressed up, stories and singing, and animals.
Typical scenes are the Anunciación of the Arcángel San Gabriel, the visit of Isabel, the dream of José, the orders of the emperor, the birth of Jesus, the adoration of the Reyes Magos, and the flood of Egypt.
In many locations accompanying market stalls sell local food produce and handicrafts.
Sometimes the Reyes Magos are present, offering an opportunity for children to deliver their present-request letters directly to the Three Kings, or Magi.
This province is so well-known for its belenes vivientes that you can follow a route across the hills from one pretty town to the next, with a few on the coast as well.
This impressive one-day belen viviente takes place in the Barrio de Santa María, with 60 different scenes and 600 villages taking part. The different scenes run for 1000 metres, from calle San Francisco de Paula along to Plaza del Llanete, Síñigo, Cervantes, Alonso Picazo, Nuestra Señora de la Paz, Puerta del Sol, Alarcón, Plaza de las Descalzas, Padre Vedelín, San José, Plaza Iglesia Mayor, Vicario Martínez y Puerta de Belén. Additioial parking is provided in the Polígono Industrial, with buses laid on to ferry visitors to the town centre. Takes place either one or two Sundays before Christmas.
Arcos de la Frontera
Arcos de la Frontera has a belen viviente in the beautiful Plaza del Cabildo in front of the Parador Hotel and other surrounding streets from five in the afternoon until eleven at night.
It claims to be the largest in Spain. Tracing the nativity story from the Visitation to the Birth, it features various colourful scenes with extravagant costumes and flamenco-influenced music, including a Jewish wedding, Roman centurions and King Herod's Palace, complete with belly-dancers.
It takes normally place in the evening, on the last Saturday before Christmas. More>
Located in an atmospheric location: the patio at the castle entrance in Tarifa, Spain's most southerly port town, this belen viviente sees 25 townsfolk play out popular scenes from the days before the birth of Christ. Visitors follow an organised itinerary, and can see handicrafts, animals, and can even stop at an inn to taste locally-produced wine and cheese. In the market you can see stalls with goods from this era, wandering vendors, and in the entrance of San Mateo church is a display of la Anunciación.
It takes place over three days on the weekend before Christmas.
In Espera, the traditional belen viviente which takes place on the last Saturday before Christmas, with various locations including a cave under the castle, since some versions of the Nativity have this is as Jesus' birthplace.
The town famous for its leather goods, has a belen viviente across many locations in the old town on a Saturday before Christmas.
Other towns in Cadiz where you can see a belen viviente:
Chipiona, Benaldamena, Benalup/Casas Viejas, Vejer de la Frontera, Algeciras, Prado del Rey, El Gastor.
The belén viviente in Beas is the oldest in Andalucía and the second-oldest in Spain. It started in 1969 and takes up more than 3,000 m2. Around the Belen is a traditional market of chestnuts, home-made sweets, chocolate, ceramics and traditional handicrafts. Weekend and holidays, evenings and mornings, from late November until early January.
In Galaroza the belén viviente is located around the Cerro de Santa Brígida. Weekends and holiday evenings during December and early January.
Linares de la Sierra
In Linares de la Sierra the three kings is particularly important. Bonfires are lit in the streets to keep everyone warm, stalls sell hot drinks and snacks. Rather than a formal procession, the villagers open their front doors and set up makeshift belenes vivientes (living nativity scenes) and up to 1,000 visitors come to the village to see. Watch the video.
The belén viviente of Fontanar, a hamlet in Pozo Alcón in Jaen province, takes place on Christmas Day afternoon, with 300 villagers taking part. The streets of the hamlet are decorated for the occasion, which started in 2004. The children may also deliver their letters to the Reyes Magos.
Started in 2001, this belen viviente of Velez-Malaga normally takes place alongside theatrical and musical productions in the grounds of Colegio Público Juan Paniagua, on the last weekend in December.