When Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem to sign up for taxes, the town had a lot more action than just a stable. All of the trades that were alive and active in the community like Bethlehem would easily have been seen and heard and provided life to the community.
This was just not just a country of shepherds. There were stonemasons and carpenters, fishers, roofers and makers of cooking utensils. Perhaps, metalsmith and certainly blacksmiths.
The Basilica of Santiago de Compostela tried to display the Nativity in the total context of Bethlehem. Even better, the beautifully crafted figures move and give a sense of the world going on in the Holy Land in the year 0. Fishers fish. Woodcutters cut wood. There's real action going on and when you walk around the entire miniature world, you get a sense of how it must have felt to live there at the time.
Of course, there are the shepherds watching their sheeps and there's the wise man checking the skies, the assorted animals that live in the manger swing their heads and complain about losing sleep. So, in this great grey, somewhat foreboding Basilica is a small world of humanity living out their lives in what historically is one of the most important moments in history.
See the Full Nativity Display of Santiago de Compostela
Many Western Europeans grew up with a multi-generational Christmas holy family scene that was rolled out on to the mantelpiece in mid-December every year.
This varied from stick creatures made by the children to high quality porcelain. The main interest was in protecting them from indifferent cats, ignorant tennis balls, and over cooking by the fireplace below. They were a tradition, little else.
But some cities in Europe have quite a different understanding of the holy family display. As an example in Zaragoza, a major portion of the central town square is filled with every character, animal and tree that could possibly be included in the Nativity scene. They're all life-size.
Walking around the 50 meter by 20 meter installation is an interesting experience as you feel you're peeking into history. The images avoid the soporific looks of the traditional Nativity with smiles and happy glances. The entire presentation has an upbeat feel that brings back some of the non-mercantile joy generations once had in Christmas.
There are many reasons to visit Zaragoza but if time permits at Christmas, visiting to see this life-size Nativity along with the market that springs up around it and the wonderful mix of architecture, modern and vintage that surround it, is really worth the effort.
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