Felices Fiestas in Sevilla

by La Sevillana /
La Sevillana's picture
Dec 03, 2009 / 0 comments

Sevillanos love tradition. Most are dedicated to keeping their beloved city as it always has been. Nevertheless, despite the tenacity of Sevillanos in retaining their traditions, even Sevilla, like all cultures and the places that embody them, is changing. In one of those amazing contradictions that I continually discover here, it is in the celebration of two very traditional holidays that this change is most apparent: Christmas and Three Kings’ Day.

Christmas in Seville.

Photo Wikimedia Commons: curimedia

Seville at Christmas. From Felices Fiestas in SevillaThe Spanish have traditionally celebrated two holidays related to the birth of Christ: Christmas on the 25th of December and Three Kings’ Day on the 6th of January. In the past, people gave gifts only on Three Kings’ Day, or Reyes, to commemorate the arrival of the three kings, or wise men, who bore gifts for baby Jesus. Today, some Sevillanos have adopted the practice of also giving gifts on Christmas, when families have traditionally gathered together for dinner. Many interpret these two days of gift-giving as an unfortunate consquence of the commercialization of these holidays and a shift of focus away from family and on to material possessions.

Another bit of Christmas commercialization that has diffused to this most traditional city are American Christmas movies which are, inexplicably, shown after Christmas and before Three Kings’ Day. This confused me immensely until I realized that “Christmas” in Spain begins on Christmas Eve and stretches until the arrival of Reyes, two weeks later. As a result, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation isn’t broadcast until sometime between Christmas and Reyes.

While it’s true that many here lament the commercialization implied by two days of gift-giving, I am impressed by the way which Sevillanos have managed to incorporate this modern, commercialized Christmas into a two week long fiesta while keeping their traditions, and that Sevillano flair for over-the-top celebration, intact.

Belen market. From Felices Fiestas in SevillaA prime example of the marriage of commercialization with tradition is in Belen displays. Belenes are nativity scenes, and competition for the best, most detailed Belen is cut-throat in Sevilla. Belenes can be seen all over the city, in private homes, store windows, plazas and churches – even banks. People will stand in line, sometimes literally for hours in the (relative) cold, to get a glimpse of a particularly big, breathtaking Belen. To this end, beginning the last week of November, the city center is invaded by a Belen market complete with display booth after display booth (see the photo at right) selling any and every item you could ever possibly need for your Belen, from the extravagantly dressed three wise men mounted on camels to a store selling miniatures of jamón (It would seem that the fact that Jews are not allowed to eat pork has somehow escaped the attention of the average Sevillano, who evidently cannot conceive of a life without jamón).

While Belens have traditionally been a part of the holiday season in Seville, this over-the-top commercialization is relatively new, and some figurines will set you back literally hundreds of euros. The up side to this commercialization is that, while the price of some figurines may be off the map, others have become even more accessible to the average person. Therefore, families who would previous have had very modest nativity scenes in their homes can now afford their own Bethlehem complete with running water, entire market places and camp fires that appear to have real flames.

Felices Fiestas in Sevilla

(At left, a Belen figurine selling cloth. At the Belen market, you can buy figurines performing every imaginary task that may (or may not) have been done in Bethlehem during the time of Christ. Belen items for sale also include windmills with moving parts, wells with running water, and buildings with tiny lights inside. I once spotted a stable with a little black cloud hanging over the top that spilled real rain drops on the nativity scene below it.)

In their excitement to have the most dramatic and/or authentic Belen possible, some have even begun to include live animals (although these are not for sale at the Belen market stalls). One plaza near my atico apartment had a donkey last year tethered sadly near baby Jesus as traffic whizzed noisily by at all hours. In another plaza immediately outside the Santa Ana church in my ‘hood, the Belen boasted a donkey, bunnies, geese and ducks. Not sure if all these animals are native to what is today Israel, or exactly which of them may have been in attendance when the three kings in all their wisdom arrived to Bethlehem, but it certainly is surreal and bemusing to see farm animals camped out in a busy, modern city with a population approaching one million. Luckily, despite some minor changes to the tradition of Belenes, they show no sign of disappearing.

castanas asadas. From Felices Fiestas in Sevilla

Being an American, I love the holidays in Sevilla, as my own cultural system includes the belief that one can never give, or get, too many presents and I am therefore unimaginably pleased to have stumbled across a place in which everyone gets to unwrap Christmas presents on two separate occasions each year. While it’s devastating to think of a Sevilla without those traditions which make her such a special place during the felices fiestas, I love getting gifts on Christmas and Three King’s Day, and go each year to the Belen market to stare in wonder at the tiny, intricate and incredibly detailed figurines. Things change, after all. Even in Seville, and even in the midst of tradition.

(During the holiday season, the smell of castañas asadas, or roasted chestnuts, permeates the city. Vendors (photo at right), many of whom look suspiciously like homeless men, sell these from carts all over the city.)