Being our first Christmas here in Spain, I had lots of things to learn and experience. We wanted to, as best as we could, preserve both the American traditions that I have along with the Spanish traditions that I was going to learn all about this year. Keeping this in mind, we had lots to do to get ready for the holiday season.

Before my mom was done with her visit, she was determined to help us set up for the holiday season as best she could. And as in the States the custom is to start putting Christmas decorations up the day after Thanksgiving, she had just two days before she left to go back to Arizona! We were on a mission as we hit the shopping mall, and right away we actually found a really nice tree that we loved! It’s about 6ft tall, it has pine cones and cranberry bunches already attached to the branches, and many different shades of green all over the tree making it look almost real!

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While we were at the mall we also stopped by one of the bigger departments stores, Carrefour, to check out their decoration deals and all of a sudden Jorge was on his own mission: finding the perfect pieces for his nativity scene. I had heard rumors about his past nativity scenes; that they had real water running through them, that they were very grandiose, and that he was known to spend hours and hours perfecting every wiseman, camel, sheep and shephard. My mom also being quite the aficionado of nativity scenes; they were getting along great planning out how this nativity scene was going to come together. I only had one question. Where the heck was this monstrosity of a nativity going to be placed in our little house? And he had an answer. You know that nice long part of our counter that you use everyday for cooking, we can put it there, right? Sure. That’s absolutely perfect.

We grabbed a few strings of lights and ornaments for the tree and we were on our way home to start getting our house ready for Christmas! Or so I thought. But, with nativity scene productions still on the mind, we had to make a quick stop at one of the top nativity retailers in Logroño. I know, you’re asking yourself ‘Is that something that really exists?’, but let me tell you, nativity building here is like an Olympic sport this time of year. Is your Joseph looking a little under the weather? Need a new one? This would be your spot. Looking for just one more sheep to perfectly complete the heard on the hill? Again, this would be your spot. We were on a hunt for a good river or wishing well piece to go along with the rest of our nativity purchases. You must know, at this time, I was still very confused as to the whole nativity constructing charade. Where I’m from, you unbox your little barn, unwrap your Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, a shepherd or two, the Kings on their camels and a donkey or cow, if you’re really fancy, and call it a day. I’m talking 10 minute setup tops, right? Well, let’s just say, little by little I started understanding that our nativity scene this year was not going to be a quick & easy job.

When we finally got home, after picking out the perfect wishing well that even had an upstream river as well, my mom and I started on the Christmas tree. Turing on Miracle on 34th Street, a beloved tradition of our own, we had the tree up in no time. We hung the stockings and lights and attempted to find spaces for the little bits of Christmas that we had accumulated from our first Christmas together last year in Phoenix. And at the end of the movie, we were all done! I looked over at Jorge to see how he was doing and he had the backdrop of the stars and the floor of sand taped down and in place. Ok, I thought, this is definitely going to be a more-than-one-day project. But I will have to say that it was the most precise backdrop of a nativity scene I had ever seen! I think this was a Friday night.

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Day two. Saturday morning my mom was heading back to Phoenix and here we were with castles, small houses, farm animals, barns, endless packages of petrified wood made to look like mountains and fake moss taking over our dining room table. By the end of Saturday, we were on our way. He had the small village pretty much finished in it many different altitudes and some of the backdrops and mountains in place.

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Day three. I think by day three he had all of the backdrop lights in place, the wells and rivers where they needed to be, all of the electricity (did I mention our nativity is using two complete power strips to function?) hooked up and plugged in, and now we just had to create the scene. I was invited to help with this part. I had the mountain terrain ‘where shepherds watched their flocks by night…’ and the barn yard ‘where farmers fed their chickens…’, wait I don’t recall that line in the Bible, but not to fear, our farm animals where going to be well fed throughout this Christmas season.

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Day four. Light that baby up! We had ourselves a 7ft long, fully-functioning, not only nativity scene, but the complete working city of Bethlehem. Which makes sense as to why the belén – nativity scene – is such a big deal here, and why it is so much more than just the manger scene. Belén actually means Bethlehem and here in Spain they take that seriously. They set out to make Belén, the whole city, not just the little ol’ manger scene like I was used to. And now it all makes perfect sense.

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Well, the more we worked on the our nativity scene, the more I got into it. And I will have to say that in all honesty, I am very proud of the result! In fact, we were so excited about our work that we entered into the Concurso de belenes de hogar en Logroño –  a competition of house nativity scenes spreading across all of Logroño. Yep, that exists too! And it’s not the only one. They also have one for store front windows, schools, and large companies too. Just a few days ago the belenistas – people who judges the belenes – came to visit our house to get a better look at our work of art. I guess we’ll know soon if we won! Cross your fingers!!

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So now, our belén in our house was up and ready, but we still hadn’t been to see the life-size nativity at the city hall. That was next on our list of things to do. Jorge’s mom met us in the city center as she also wanted to get a glimpse at the awesome belén that the city puts together ever year in front of the town hall. Each of the buildings that are part of the nativity scene are represented by different important cultural sites around La Rioja. I’ll describe as you pass through the pictures. This nativity scene was beautiful and I was glad to know that at least we didn’t have to compete with them in our competition! Haha! So here we go on a tour of the belén of Logroño….

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The belén is just outside of Logroño’s city hall building with the beautiful city’s crest over the entrance.

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Two famous rock formations found just outside of the city of Autol in La Rioja. They are named El Picuezo & La Picueza.

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A farmer tending to his fields. Each one of those little plants is actually planted here in the belén.

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One of my favorite sites in Logroño, Iglesia de Santa María de Palacio – aka – La aguja – The church of the needle, for the shape that the tower takes at the very top.

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La panadera – the bread maker – taking her fresh bread from the outdoor brick oven.

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A perfect version (in miniature) of the oldest house in all of La Rioja, located in Briones.

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The ideal ending to the belén: the nativity scene, perfectly illuminated, in front of a replica of the beautiful facade of La iglesia de San Bartolome – The Church of Saint Bartholomew – located here in Logroño city center.

Finally we had arrived to the week before Christmas. Our stockings were beginning to fill with special little presents, Christmas cookies were being made (click here for Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe or Sugar Cookie Recipe), and all of the necessary Christmas movies were being watched. We were ready for Christmas! But wait, there’s more! Not only do we celebrate Christmas here in Spain (more as a religious and family holiday) we also celebrate Día de los reyes magos – Three Magic Kings Day – because the kings are the ones who bring the presents to Jesus, right? Well, this happens on the 6th of January in accordance with the old Julian Calendar that states that the Kings came with their gifts to adore Jesus on that day, to many Christians the day is also called Epiphany. More on Three Magic Kings Day that to come…once we celebrate it and I know a little bit more about how it all works!

Oh, and as I am wrapping this up, am I happy to announce that I just received a call from the belenistas – judges – themselves to tell us that we are invited to the town hall on January 2nd to attend a special ceremony and be awarded our prize! Wonder what it will be!?! :)

And the winners are….

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…well, not us. BUT, we placed! There were 3 top winners for ‘nativities set up in homes’ and we got a diploma. (Meaning we didn’t get the top 3, but we made it into the top 4 of the category!) That’s good though, right? Now we still have something to strive for next year!

So there you have it. Our American-Spanish Christmas holiday. We’ve only just begun to celebrate! Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Happy Three Kings Day to you all!