Photo by Lee Woolcock
If you’ve spent any time at all in Barcelona during the run-up to Christmas, chances are you’ll have seen a typical Catalan pessebre, or nativity scene. From the life-size figures in Plaça Sant Jaume or the Cathedral’s cloisters to the jam-packed stalls at the Fira de Santa Llúcia, pessebres are big business.
The traditional nativity scene has been around since the 12th century, when the first one is said to have been made by Saint Francis of Assisi. Spreading around the Mediterranean from Italy, the trend found a home in Catalunya—first in the large displays put up in churches and squares and later in the intricate scenes set up in houses all across the region during the festive season.
Abel Plana is president of the Amícs del Pessebre de Santa María del Mar. Every year since 2002, his group have worked on the pessebre for El Born’s famous cathedral, which has grown over the years to become the huge 32m² display they have today. Working each weekend from October until early December, when the finished piece is unveiled and consecrated, the group choose a different theme each year. “This time it’s going to tie in with the sea,” Abel hints.
In October this year the Amícs launched the Escola-Taller de Pessebres de Barcelona; the first of its kind in the city. Still without a permanent base, the school meets every Wednesday using borrowed spaces and teaches traditional techniques for modelling, painting and decorating pessebres. The finished models will be displayed in Casa dels Entremesos, with a step-by-step guide to how the models are made.
“The good thing is that we have people of all ages, from 16 to 60,” Abel says. “And it’s not particularly a religious thing either. Of course, everyone in the group has their own beliefs, but pessebrisme is more about Catalan culture and keeping traditions alive.”
Across town at the top of Passeig de Gràcia, Mireia Grisolia would be inclined to agree with him. She runs Reixach-Campanyà, a cavern-like treasure trove of religious art which has occupied the same spot for just short of 100 years and which comes alive each Christmas with a stunning display of nativity scenes. She says that pessebres are enjoying something of a resurgence thanks to parents who want to give their children the traditional Christmas they remember from their own childhoods.
Mireia’s family business was founded by the sculptor Josep Reixach in 1874 and, after being sold to her great-grandfather in 1923, has been passed down through three generations of women in the family until Mireia today. Her father still pops in from time to time, while her 6-month-old daughter sleeps in a cot in a brightly wallpapered corner of the office.“At its peak under my great-grandad, there were 20 craftsmen working here,” Mireia says, waving an arm across the vast workshop. “But over the years demand fell and the workmen, one by one, retired or died. When I started out, we had no one making models here at all.”
Since Mireia has been at the helm, production has started up again in the workshop. There is now a busy team of three, with Mireia herself dividing her time between model making and serving on the shop floor.
All of Reixach-Campanyà’s models are made of wood pulp, using age-old techniques. The figures are moulded in two halves, heads and extremities attached, eyes inserted individually from inside the head. “Each finger has a metal rod inside it so that if it gets dropped, it doesn’t break off completely,” Mireia notes, pointing out the attention to detail that goes into each piece.
“It’s almost impossible to give a simple estimate of how much time it takes to make one figure,” she says, indicating a nearby statue of a youthful Jesus. “For example, this model perhaps took eight hours all in all. But obviously there is a lot of waiting between each stage in the process, and every little detail, like adding gold leaf or hand-painting these patterns on the clothes, can add hours.”
Figures from Mireia’s workshop are sold on site as well as in other shops in Barcelona, Spain and the rest of the world. Incredibly, the iconic, hand-clasping baby Jesus that features in the most significant of all nativity scenes —that of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem—is an original Reixach Campanyà model, taken to the Holy Land in the Thirties by Franciscan monks. Today, Mireia and her team ship thousands of reproductions in 12 different sizes for sale there. “Sometimes people come back to Barcelona with one and bring it in to show us when they realise we made it. Strange to think that it’s been all the way to Jerusalem and back, isn’t it?”
The shop is also full of models from other producers, both local and international, hand-made and mass-produced from plastic, resin, ceramic, metal and clay. Mireia points out the well-known figures from Martí Castells Martí, a hugely respected Catalan sculptor whose clay models are still produced by his grandchildren using his traditional methods. There are also nativity scenes from Spain, Germany, Peru and Colombia, as well as other typical Christmas items from around the world; not forgetting the well-known caganers of Catalan tradition. Prices can range from €1.60 for a tiny model of the holy family, to perhaps €4000 for a full scene of three-foot figures.
While Reixach Campanyà sells all kinds of religious art, icons, rosaries, chalices, crucifixes and figurines, pessebres are now the biggest part of their business. Mireia says business has changed greatly over the years, but that there’s still not a typical customer. “We have everything from old ladies who want us to fix the figurine they’ve had since their first communion, to Latin American immigrants who have a small shrine in the house, or passing tourists looking for a caganer out of season. The Fira de Santa Llúcia is only on for a short time each year, whereas we’re open all year round,” Mireia points out with a smile.
But by far the biggest draw in recent years has been the shop’s colourful Christmas window display, which makes children beg their parents to take them inside, as well as attracting adults who want to recapture a lost part of their childhood. “We spend a long time working on it because it helps us appeal to a much wider audience. We’re aware that the shop can seem very serious to people who’ve never been inside, and particularly if they’re not religious,” concedes Mireia. “The tradition of pessebres had been declining for a long time, but I think there’s a whole generation of baby boomers who come here wanting to give their kids the same kind of Christmas they remember from when they were little.”
“I’ll do the same when my little girl is a bit older, but I haven’t had a pessebre at home for years now,” Mireia confesses. “Christmas is such a busy time for us that I spend barely any time in the house, and besides, with so many here, why would I need one at home?”
The little figure of a barretina-wearing ‘crapper’ caught quite literally with his pants down is one of the most curious and enduring symbols of Catalunya at Christmas. Its origins are unclear, but it’s been documented as far back as the 17th century, and similar figures are also seen in parts of France and Italy.
Caganers are usually tucked away in an unobtrusive part of the pessebre, far from the actual nativity scene. In fact, finding the hidden figure within the model has always been a popular game for children. There was outrage in 2005 when the Ajuntament de Barcelona chose to omit the famous figure from its nativity scene in Plaça Sant Jaume and the caganer was restored the following year.
No one is sure why the figure of a man relieving himself should feature in the holiest of scenes, but there are many theories. Some say that he represents good luck or fertility, the equality of all people or the humanity of Jesus, while others claim that it simply makes the scene more down-to-earth and realistic.