madrid: nativity blues

Posted on December 23, 2005

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belen.jpgby benjamin curtis 

Controversial gay marriages, dwindling congregations, general religious apathy – there is increasing worry that the Catholic Church is in trouble in Spain. That may be so, but the dogmatic fervor aroused by that most traditional of Christmas artifacts, the Belen, or Nativity Scene, is causing quite a stir in Madrid this festive season.

The cribs in my neighborhood bakeries, dry cleaners and shoe shops are impressive enough, but nothing touches the Belén de Bancaja, the largest Nativity Scene in Europe. Covering 300 m² it includes 1,200 figures covered in 300 kilos of paint, is illuminated by 300 spotlights fed by 6 kilometres of cable, and has been visited by 52,000 people in the first three weeks.

So why all the fuss? A virus has destroyed the on-line ticket reservation system, and the telephone lines have collapsed. That means turning up and queuing for up to three hours in the cold to clap eyes on this marvel of miniatures.

Could it be fate, then, that for those angry pilgrims who can’t take the wait, Madrid’s other obligatory Christmas shrine is just next door? You’d be amazed at how quickly Nativity figurines are forgotten, when a frozen family steps into the commercial paradise of the capital’s largest department store, El Corte Ingles.