Thanks to volunteers Living Nativity Scenes brighten up Catalan towns

Just like every Christmas, traditional Living Nativity Scenes around Catalonia are on show, this year with an expected increase of attendance despite cuts in public subsidies. Towns are unwilling to let budget cuts affect them and they have combined imagination, volunteer work and citizen involvement to maintain the tradition.


December 19, 2011 11:51 PM

Barcelona (ACN).- Less subsidies but more public and citizen involvement. This is how the tradition of Catalan Living Nativity Scenes will overcome this year’s hard times. Every Christmas, the Biblical characters come alive around Catalonia’s villages, where locals, shops and entities work together to represent live scenes from the Bible –with humans and animals– such as the Nativity, the Departure from Egypt, the Adoration of the Three Wise Men, and other Christian scenes. The Catalan Coordinating Association of Living Nativity Scenes assured that this tradition has a “guaranteed future”, but regretted that the subsidies public administrations grant have decreased over the past few years. In some cases they “have totally disappeared”. However, this situation has not affected the growth in the number of visitors, who are “very faithful”, and the creation of new Living Nativity Scenes, like in the town of Valls, in Tarragona. This year, the role of volunteers is also crucial for the tradition’s survival.

The Catalan Coordinating Association of Living Nativity Scenes has brought together around 30 Nativity scenes from around Catalonia and is focusing its activities on advertising the representations and providing help, especially in matters of equipment and material. The Secretary of the association, Gemma Roig, deplored the fact that public administration subsidies have been reduced over the years and some have been completely taken away, as is the case of those coming from the Catalan Government. “Depending on the representation you perform, they give you one amount or another of money, but for about two years the Catalan Government has cancelled this subsidy”, explained Roig, who also added that city councils have reduced their contribution, even though they maintain the subsidy.

Volunteers and tickets pay for the costs

The formula for the success of Living Nativity Scenes is double. On the one hand, the “importance of the volunteers”, who “get involved” and “bring their own materials to build the representation” is fundamental. On the other hand, the ticket prices are low which, according to Roig, are usually between €8 and €11. “At least we need to regain the money to pay what we have spent”, stressed Roig. Despite the ticket prices, the association has noticed an increase in the number of visitors, which Roig sees as “very faithful” with some “visiting Living Nativity Scenes around Catalonia”. The rise in the number of visitors is what makes Roig state that the future of this tradition is secured.

The first Living Nativity Scene

The Catalan passion for Nativity Scenes has taken this tradition to a higher level, leaving the mere figure representations behind. More than half a century ago, different towns around Catalonia decided to use real humans and animals to bring the Nativity Scenes alive.

The live representation in Corbera de Llobregat, 25 kilometres from Barcelona, is one of the oldest Living Nativity Scenes in Catalonia. Performed at a peculiar red rock formation on top of the town, the tradition has been running every Christmas since 1962. Corbera’s Nativity scene allows the visitor to walk among living figures, guided by public address explanations of the Gospel mixed with prose commentaries and folk poetry. It has attracted more than 800,000 people in 50 years, during which 1,500 representations have been performed. Living Nativity Scenes are never the same; they evolve each season and they include new scenes, constructions and characters.

Corbera has the highest budget

The oldest Nativity scene in Catalonia has the same budget as last year of €110,000, an amount that organisers obtain from uptake of the office, with ticket prices between €8 and €11, and public subsidies. Last year, the town council spent €4,000, however, this year’s call for the subsidy has not been announced and no contribution has been made. On the contrary, Barcelona Provincial Council has contributed €600 for the first time. And coinciding with the its 50th anniversary, the Caixa Penedès Social Work organisation has donated €24,000. The President of the Association of Friends of Corbera, Jordi Boltà, explained that the entity’s main intention was to have a more austere budget for 2011, but eventually they had to invest €18,000 more because of robberies they suffered, which also forced them to set aside some innovations they were planning.

Valls makes its debut

The town of Valls, located in the southern Catalan province of Tarragona, will present a Living Nativity Scene for the first time. The whole village, from bakeries to flower shops, has thrown itself into the organisation of the event, which will take place in the streets of the old town from December 27th to December 30th.  More than 600 people, around 50 companies and local entities are participating in this project in which materials and volunteer hours are the exchange currency. The whole “society is fully involved”, states Montse Vall, Project Coordinator. The representation not only includes biblical scenes, but it will also recreate the history of the Catalan town from ancient Rome to contemporary times.

Jesús (close to Tortosa), subsidy cut by half

The economic crisis has not stopped the birth of a new living representation in the southern Catalan areas of Camp de Tarragona and Terres de l’Ebre, and the continuity of three of them with a long tradition been maintained. In Jesús (close to Tortosa) they have reached their 26th year of Living Nativity Scenes with 150 actors. Although its existence is not in danger, the Project Coordinator, Joan Hierro, explained that they have only received half of the €4,000 previously expected. This has forced the organisers to change the cooking of sausages for bread and chocolate for the children. “We will continue while we are able to pay for electricity and the food for the animals, because it would hurt us if this ended”, he stated. At the Masia de Castelló, an uninhabited village in Vandellòs, they celebrated their 13th edition with an adjusted budget of €2,000 less that last year. Each edition serves as an excuse to carry out restoration work  in the village. The Living Nativity Scene, which is not biblical, uses visitor interaction with the 50 scenes as its main differentiating trait to attract visitors. The oldest in the area is the Nativity Scene of Pobla de Montornès (Tarragonès), running since 1975. It has not suffered any changes because of the crisis, although the town council had to take charge of it because the members of the organisation are too old.

Martorelles, without subsidies

The living performance of Martorelles (in Barcelona Metropolitan Area) is similar to that seen in 2010. Joan Puig, one of those responsible for the representation, has stressed that the quality will not diminish and that “the goal is always to set the bar high”. The Living Nativity performance includes 180 people, technicians and extras, and the main characters make their own clothes. Puig has said that the crisis will not affect the show. Ticket prices are €5 and the Nativity scene does not receive any subsidy from the town council.

Castell d’Aro uses “imagination” and the Internet

In the province of Girona, one of the most representative live Nativity performances is that of Castell d’Aro (in the Baix Empordà County) which has been going since 1959 and has been awarded the Catalan Government’s distinction, the Sant Jordi Cross. “Our objective is quality”, highlights one of the members of the Board, Josep Tomàs. Apart from improving the wardrobe, updating and adding some new scenes, this year will see a bigger participation, because the amount of extras reaches 430 people. And all this has been achieved with half of the subsidies they used to receive, a fact that had to be compensated with “imagination” and the “generous collaboration” of those who take part in it. To reach the highest audience, this year they have been selling tickets online. “We need to bring the Nativity scene in to the twenty-first century”, concluded Tomàs.

Bàscara, first year without subsidy

In Bàscara (Alt Empordà County), they are carrying out their 39th edition. With 200 participants -100 more organising it-, this Nativity live performance will be displayed without modifications. This is the first year they will not receive subsidies –usually the Catalan Government or Girona Provincial Council used to contribute- but this is not a problem, as one of the collaborators Montse Feliu stated. She said that they are a “reinforcement” but one cannot count on them.

Another village that will display its living performance is Brunyola (La Selva County), of 400 inhabitants, that celebrates 30 years of shows. This year they have decided to incorporate new technologies using a large screen. The President of the Organising Committee ‘Els Amics de Brunyola’ ( ‘Friends of Brunyola’), Lourdes Serra, stressed that this Nativity scene is very “realistic” because those who play the roles of artisans are professionals in the same sectors.

Sant Guim de la Plana’s performance comes back after four years

The city council and the organising society of the living Nativity scene of Sant Guim de la Plana (Segarra County) have been in a dispute for four years over the price the latter had to pay for occupying public spaces, and without performing the traditional scenes. The organisation had to increase its budget by €9,000 to be able to use it and had to apply a policy of “recycling as much as possible”.

Another of the best-known Nativity scenes of this kind in the province of Lleida is that of Sudanell (Segrià County), with 27 years of history. It stands out for having a route of almost one kilometre long as well as for the 250 extras and 65 scenes that are represented. Some scenes include displays of ancient professions no longer scene such as the work of cart drivers, quarrymen or herbalists.