Celebrating Christmas with Arcos de la Frontera's Living Nativity
Arcos de la Frontera was our first adventure upon arriving in Rota nearly two years ago. Despite being under an hour from our house, and very charming, we haven’t been back since. That is until this past Saturday when we ventured there for their annual Belen Viviente, or living nativity. For one night only, the entire village is transformed into Bethlehem. Everyone is dressed in period clothes, performing time honored crafts like carpentry and weaving and baking bread in large stone ovens. Donkeys and baby sheep and goats appeared throughout the whole town. Groups decked out in Biblical fashion sat around singing zambombas, or Spanish carols with a flamenco twist. And, of course, at the very end, we got to see a crying baby Jesus being cared for in his manger.
Outside of traveling to the Holy Land, I feel like southern Spain is an ideal place to visualize that story of the first Christmas. Arcos, and other nearby white villages, are made up of rambling, square white homes. The streets are so narrow that in some places, your arms can nearly touch both opposing walls. The landscape is dry, and the people warm.
The living nativity in Arcos is the most famous in the area, so we were joined by many people flocking in for the night. We did a lot of research, and overall, were happy with how the night progressed. We left Rota at 2 p.m., and by 3 p.m., had secured a parking space in the garage on the edge of the old village. For those arriving later in the evening, there was a dirt lot for parking at 2 euros, just before of the parking garage. We then worked our way up the hill into the city gates. We wanted to make sure that we were already inside when they started crowd control measures. Our plan was to grab drinks and tapas at one of the first restaurants, however, they had already closed their wait lists. Fortunately, we were able to find a bar by 4 p.m., and a table not much after. We waited (with a bottle of wine) for more than an hour before receiving our food. But it was perfect. We were able to eat quickly, and had we not, the restaurant was wrapping people’s sandwiches to go (which is rare in this area of Spain). There were plenty of children to play with ours, and a gate keeping them from the street.
After passing time with food and drink, we worked ourselves back to the starting point, where we had to wait for a few minutes before being allowed to enter. Everything I had read in advance said that the nativity would start at 6:30, but upon arrival, we noticed posters that advertised a start time of 5:30 p.m. Ultimately, I believe we were part of the second group, and entered right at 6:00 p.m. The crowds were tight, but kind. Old grandmothers would allow our kids to jump in the line, and more than once I spotted older men standing strategically standing along turns in the path, beers in hand, shooing children along who were about to separate from the herd. In addition to these helpers, the path was easily marked with beautiful palm branch arches, and torch candles lit our way.
We were able to grab pestiño cookies from the nuns who sell cookies from their convent in town. I learned earlier this season while researching an article on Christmas in Spain that pestiños – fried dough dipped in spices and honey – are an important part of many family festivities. A perfect traditional treat to sample on this traditional holiday tour.
It took us a solid hour to walk through all of the scenes before heading back to the parking garage. By this time, masses of people were waiting to be allowed in through the gate. While it was a special event, for sure, everyone in our group commented that we would not have waited in that line to enter. We saw many Americans we knew also exiting, so perhaps it is an American (or military) mindset to come early and avoid lines.
This living nativity was on my Spanish bucket list, and I’m thrilled that we made it work this year. I will say that I was expecting to see more scenes telling the story of the first Christmas. And while there were some, notably Mary looking for an inn, most of what was on display were scenes from life in Bethlehem in 0 A.D. It was beautiful and festive and the kids loved the story brought to life in that way. I wouldn’t feel the need to go again next year, but I highly recommend it to anyone in Andalusia on that one special Saturday each December.