Every December when I was a little girl my mother and I began THE QUEST. The quest for the perfect Nativity set. The nativity scene had a couple of stipulations: our Mary had to look young, our Christ child couldn’t be blonde, and there had to be three wise men. I’m not sure how these stipulations came into play, but in my childhood home, the Bethlehem scene was a bigger deal than Santa Claus. Everything had to be perfectly exactly right. A lot of time and care went into creating the scene. This allowed us to focus on the real meaning of Christmas: the Arrival of the Messiah that is Jesus, the Christ child.
You see, In Colombia, the country my mother is from, Colombians re-create the village of Bethlehem throughout the month of December. Until 1991 Colombia was an officially Catholic country and Christmas in Colombia was clearly a religious holiday. Santa Claus, although heard of, was not as wildly celebrated there back then as it is there now. Even to this day contests are held on who has the best manger scene. People decorate it according to their knowledge of Bethlehem, or they adapt the scene to their location. One can find Bethlehem scenes in very tropical or mountain set ups, as well as on pastures or lakes, the more creative the better!
And even though I was raised as a Protestant in the United States, my mother kept this tradition of creating a Bethlehem scene alive. For the first two weeks of December we would scour all of the stores in Philadelphia in search of creatures to add to our scene. Then, about nine days before Christmas, my mother would place the Nativity scene in a central location in our home. The nativity scene included Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels, villagers, cows, donkeys, sheep, and on December 24th we add the Christ child. The scene stayed put until January 6th, which is Three Kings Day, on this day we would add the wise men and they would remain on the mantle until February. Seems simple enough right?
Now I have been living in my own place for four years now, but I’ve kept the tradition alive by creating a Bethlehem scene. Each year I make the town a little different and I host a Bethlehem Party or Fiesta del Pesebre to set up my Bethlehem scene. A Bethlehem Party is a bit like a tree-trimming party, however instead of bringing ornaments or buying a tree to decorate, guests are asked to bring a token or figurine that they can place in the Bethlehem scene that represents themselves on their faith journey.
You will need the following:
- A CD of classic Christmas carols to set the mood. (My favorite is “Mi Burrito Sabanero”.)
- Snacks to eat while creating the Pesebre (this year we will have empanadas, arepas, bunuelos, hot chocolate).
- Village materials (moss, twigs, or colored construction paper, origami paper, play dough or anything that can be used to create a village scene).
- A tambourine, bell, or drum to play some live Christmas carols.
- Something to add to the nativity (Mary, Joseph, a shepherd, wise men, superhero, animal, stars, angels, dolls that could be villagers (like Spiderman, Cinderella). The call for creativity is loud here as size or shape does not matter so long as the item doesn’t promote war (Christmas is a time of celebrating the Prince of Peace) and doesn’t contradict the message of Messiah.
Create the terrain first, then place the manger scene at the highest point, or in the center. This reminds us that we should have Christ in the center of our lives, and lift His name high so all can see.
Add the villagers. Don’t worry if they aren’t dressed in accurate period attire, or appear to be out of place in Bethlehem. Remember that many will seem out of place in heaven, but He has granted salvation for all who believe in His name.
Add the shepherds, animals, and angels. Space them out in the beginning of the month and as December 24th draws closer, bring them closer to the Christ child. Remember Christ draws all to Himself, from the poorest to the wealthiest, from the most profane to the holiest.
Add Mary and Joseph, and as the days pass, move them closer to the manger. Remember that God has created us for a purpose, each each play a part in the story.
Finally, on December 24th, add Jesus, the Christ child. Tell the little ones how every good gift comes from above, and how Christmas is a time to celebrate the greatest gift of all: Jesus.