A journey through the hands of a maker of magical items, discovering not only the secrets of Sacred art, but also the history and preservation of disappearing forms of Artisan work.
A Canarian Nativity Scene
Since we walk two different paths – my husband follows the Norse path, and mine is a mixture of several Latin American paths (mostly Venezuelan Spiritualism and Umbanda) - we celebrate both Yule and Christmas. In the last post, we created a very talismanic Yule Tree; in this post, we'll move into the creation and history of a Nativity Scene.
Before I go on to the topic of this post, I would like to explain that all Latin American Spirituality is deeply imbued of Catholic iconography, and as it happens with Vodun, most practitioners are both Santeros / Umbandists / Spiritualists AND Catholics at the same time. Although I consider myself a Pagan, and I share the moral values of most Pagans, my holy days often coincide with the holy days of Catholicism, and I work with Saints, Angels and several avatars of the Virgin Mary just as much as I do with Orishas, Exus or our own Guanche* Ancestors.
For me, Christmas is two things – the time to reflect on what has been accomplished in the previous year, and the time to plan and prepare what's to come in the next. I would like to point out that, for those of us living on the Northwest coast of Africa, Winter is the season of gardening, wildharvesting and abundance, since our temperatures are very mild during Winter months and Nature recovers from the terrible summer temperatures, when nothing can grow due to the extreme heat. Winter means, for example, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, walks in Nature, even going to the beach. And, as the end of the year approaches, Nativity Scenes.
Nativity scenes are big in Spain. Not big, BIG. All around the country, businesses, city councils and homes alike work all through Autumn to present huge Nativity Scenes – and when I say huge, I mean an entire room filled with a Bethlehem landscape, with hundreds of figurines, and usually lights, music and all kind of effects, as a giant diorama.
Nativity scenes were first created in the thirteenth century by Saint Francis Of Assisi, and originally it was what is called a “Living Nativity”, which is a Nativity performed by actors, or simply neighbours from the same town. Decorative Nativities made of figurines are first placed only on convents and churches; in the eighteen century, Spanish king Charles III brings it from Naples, Italy, and it quickly becomes a common Christmas decoration among the wealthiest Spanish families; in the nineteenth century, there is already a nativity on almost every single Spanish home.
A basic Nativity scene contains the Holy Family (Mary, Joseph and Jesus), the Annunciation angel, a cow and a donkey. Regular additions are a group of shepherds and their sheep (who, according to the tradition, were the first to worship child Jesus), and the three Wise Men and their camels. From there, it can grow to no end; all kinds of peasants, houses, animals, plants, and of course an incredible (and marvellous) naivety that completely ignores historical sources – for example, it is a custom to have “regional” nativities, where peasants are dressed in the traditional folk costumes of the maker's region, and the houses and landscape resemble the regional ones too. At the end of the post, you will find a link to a gorgeous Canary Island – themed Nativity, and at 1:10 you can see a Canarian Witch!
When I was a child, our school would take us one day at the end of December to visit all the publicly open Nativity scenes in town – it was one of the happiest days of winter for me. One of them was the father of one of my classmates, and I would pester him every year with questions about how everything was made, to later go home and try to emulate his work with clay and my clumsy child hands. Another much cherished memory is my grandmother's Nativity, which had been completely handmade by my aunt and uncle in clay – I come from a family of artists, so those figures were quite a treasure by themselves, but what really warms my heart is the memory of my grandparents, letting me and my sister choose where the figurines would be placed.
As Pagans, we firmly believe in honouring our ancestral traditions, both from our Guanche Ancestors and from our direct family ancestors; in a time when people purchase hideous made-in-China nativities, we oppose that superficiality by taking loving care of each detail – remember that each of the figurines you see in the pics took more than 10 hours to paint. This year, we looked for a more decorative setting, instead of going through the more diorama-style look, which would need a lot of landscaping work we didn't have the time to make. Using a very old crocheted table runner from my collection of vintage and antique fabrics, two Moroccan teapots, a Canarian bread basket and a rabbit pelt that my husband preserved, we created a setting that included symbols from our cultural identity as North Africans – and just as it happened with the Christmas Tree in the previous post, I loved the results and its energy is just the same healing, powerful energy that emanates from certain altars. Mission accomplished!
I would like to end this post wishing all the Pagan Square readers a wonderful Yule/Christmas/Hanukkah/Whatever-You-Call-It. We sincerely hope your celebrations are filled with Joy and Love, and don't forget those who don't have anything, and those who are no longer with us!
Link to the YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=jky2PGFbGyE
*Note – the Guanches are the original inhabitants of the Canary Islands, which were invaded by the Spanish between the 15th and 18th century. The Guanches, mostly Amazighe berbers, were slaughtered and subdued by the Spanish conquerors, and while we share the blood of our Ancestors, most of their cultural legacy was destroyed.
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