MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md., December 7, 2014 – During this time of the year, the residents of many Spanish speaking countries assemble “pesebres” as part of their Christmas celebration.
The word pesebre translates literally as “barn” or “place where farm animals are kept.” Over the centuries, however, it has come to mean a nativity scene. Assembling the pesebre is often a big production in Spanish-speaking countries.
During my youth in Colombia, the assembling of the pesebre was a big production.
The pesebre had to be ready nine days before Christmas. This was necessary for the novenas that were offered every day during this period. Other customs required that novenas be offered starting at the feast of St. Andrews on November 30. For us, it was just one more reason to party. We would plan each day at a different home, do the praying and then celebrate with sangria and dance until the early hours of the next morning.
Starting in early December, schools, offices, industrial plants and other businesses were closed to accommodate the holiday celebrations. To this day it is impossible to conduct any business in some Latin American countries during most of the month.
Several days before the novena started, we would obtain the materials for the pesebre. We traveled to a nearby mountain to get musgo (moss), twigs, small branches and other things that could be used to create the desired effect. This would be integrated with boxes of other objects and materials to assemble the pesebre.
A pesebre wasn’t just a nativity scene. It was a mini universe in which anything was allowed. First a base was set up consisting of tables, benches, boxes and other supporting objects. Then a tarp of some type was spread over the base and then the fun began. A good size pesebre would be about six feet by six feet.
Usually moss would be spread throughout the tarp or alternatively objects to simulate land features would be set. These included mirrors for lakes, cloth or wood for streams and bridges, small branches for trees and the actual nativity scene that would be located in the most prominent place. Foil was also heavily used.
Once every square inch of the pesebre was covered, a star would be hung from overhead.
Any object could be placed in the pesebre. Planes, trucks, people, houses, etc. I do not remember ever seeing an object of war on a pesebre, however. There was an intrinsic suspension of disbelief.
No one worried about scale. A duck in the pond could be larger than the elephant near a tree. Everyone was allowed to place any object in the pesebre and nobody would intervene or complain because the scale was not realistic.
Christmas gifts were placed around or under the pesebre. Families would attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve and then assemble around the pesebre to distribute the gifts. Small children, who may have been asleep, were woken up and would participate in many cases. Either before or after exchanging gift, a traditional meal would be served.
After the distribution of the gifts most would retire, probably in the early hours of the morning. On the 25th of December, people would get up late, usually eating leftovers or tamales. In general, this day was a quiet one many families would enjoy it privately.
The multi day celebration centered on the pesebre was always a joyous occassion.
Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist