Growing up in Mexico, I dreamt of having a river flowing through my living room. It wasn’t a far-fetched fantasy made up by my child brain, I had actually seen many a meandering stream running through friends’ homes during the month of December, when practically everyone in the still largely Catholic country sets up a nativity scene.
These representations of Jesus’s birth, known as nacimientos, are a centuries-old tradition in the Catholic world. All you really need to tell the story are the three basic figures: Virgin Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. You could make the case that the three wise men and the star that guided them to the newborn baby are also essential. But why limit yourself?
In Mexico, nacimientos can turn into elaborate extravaganzas, with their cardboard topography populated by all manner of animals and plants that you would never find side by side in the real world. Some scenes display pump-operated rivers with real water, others feature waterfalls and ponds. Some include whole cities built around the manger where Jesus was born. The creative license extends to the characters, which range from unrelated biblical figures such as Adam and Eve to random shepherds, farmers, the devil, and even tortilla makers. It’s clearly not an exercise in authenticity, but it’s festive and fun.
The very first nativity scene is credited to St. Francis of Assisi, who is said to have set up a live one in 1223 in an Italian village called Grecio. The people were later replaced by figurines. The tradition travelled from Italy to Spain to New Spain, the Spanish colony that later became Mexico. The nacimientos back then were said to be as exuberant as they are now. In 1840, an observer described one at a private home that was spread out over a whole room. It included water-projecting fountains and herds of sheep, according to magazine Mexico Desconocido (link in Spanish.) Another onlooker noted that the hills of a nacimiento he witnessed were made out of crystals—and frowned upon the mixing of flora from different regions, all covered by a dusting of fake snow.
Nacimientos, which were originally displayed in churches, are largely secular in Mexico these days. Despite the country’s constitutionally mandated separation of church and state, nativity scenes are set up by local authorities in plazas (link in Spanish) and the federal government has a countrywide contest (link Spanish) every year that renders a wide gamut of interpretations of Jesus’s birth. Here are some of last year’s winners:
The nacimiento I grew up with in Monterrey (in northern Mexico) was made by my mother out of felt-covered cardboard. The heads of the figures were wooden balls, some without any features because it was the kind of arts and crafts project that never gets finished. We would set our blank-faced figures atop hills—made by covering boxes with a swath of forest green fabric. In them we nestled the sheep, the cow, and a two-legged donkey that had to be propped up. Sadly, we never got a river.
The scene lived under the Christmas tree from mid-December until a few days after New Year’s. (The unofficial holiday season in Mexico lasts from Dec. 12, the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and ends Jan. 6, when the visit of the Magi, or Reyes, is celebrated. It is thus appropriately dubbed ”Guadalupe Reyes.”) During that period, there was ample opportunity to encounter a wide variety of nacimientos, including life-sized ones in churches and public squares.
I’ve since given up on the river idea, but not on nacimientos. My dream is to have a nacimiento like the one below, reminiscent of Colombian painter Fernando Botero and made by artisans in the Mexican state of Guerrero.