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peruvian nativity scenes

Updated on September 4, 2018
MarieAlice profile image

Mother of four teenagers, wife, housewife, freelance writer. Love traveling, watching a good movie, music, vogue, good food and good wine!

Christmas in Peru

I am Peruvian, so my best memories about Christmas come from my childhood in my country, gathering around the table with my huge family. Since Peru is a Catholic country is not strange that we enjoy celebrating Christmas and what it means, is not only about the Christmas tree and the gifts; is more about celebrating Jesus Christ birth. This is the reason why in my country Nativity Scenes are a must; there is no way you could miss decorating your home with a nice Nativity set. Cathedrals and Churches also decorate their buildings with beautiful Nativity Scenes and streets are often decorated with everything that represents Jesus birth. The Christmas tree is an imported tradition that we love, so it is common to see it in almost every Peruvian home, but for us is more commercial than traditional.

Peruvian streets are beautiful decorated with all kind of Christmas ornaments and lights, and kids enjoy just looking at those beautiful decorations. Each Peruvian city has their own way of celebrating and decorating their homes, streets and churches, each one more beautiful than the other. Since we live in the southern hemisphere, Christmas is celebrated on the beginning of summer so you can imagine that we don´t have a white Christmas, at least not in the coast or in the jungle, but we do in our Andes highlands. This fact affects the way we dress, eat, and even decorate for Christmas!!!! But one thing that will never be affected is the fact that we must prepare our home to receive baby Jesus.

Why is a Nativity Scene so important in Peru?

One of our traditions is to celebrate "Noche Buena" (Christmas Eve) on the night of December 24. After celebrating the mass, families enjoy a well elaborated meal, sing Christmas carols or "villancicos", and wait until midnight to hug each other and wish a Merry Christmas. Immediately after this, we take the figure of baby Jesus (that was hidden during all the advient time) and place it on the Nativity Scene as a symbol of his birth; along with this we continue singing Christmas Carols to show our happiness for his arrival. Soon after this, we start opening the present and continue to enjoy this wonderful day.

Now that I explain why is a nativity set so important for Peruvian families, no matter in what city or town they are living, I hope you enjoy the idea of decorating your home with a Nativity Scene. As I said before, there is no way I could celebrate Christmas without this beautiful representation of Jesus Birth, and most Peruvian families neither.

What are they made from?

As I mention before, the way we decorate in Peru depends on the region or town you live. So do the Nativity Sets. Traditional Peruvian Nativity Sets are handmade, perfectly decorated and choose local scenes, costumes, and races to represent this special momento. They also use local resources like stone, clay, wood or silver to handmade them:

  • Piedra de Huamanga: is a white stone of the Ayacucho area. Nativity sets are beautifully carved in this white Stone, showing an exquisite quality.
  • Wood: figures are hand made using local woods, but most traditional are the "Retablos" or wooden boxes filled with brightly colored figures arranged into intricate narrative scenes that portray religious, historical, or everyday events.
  • Clay: Many sets are made with clay, baked and then beautiful painted.
  • Silver: This are more expensive but also show a very sophisticated and exquisite quality.

There are lots of materials used in nativity sets and other decorations, such as alpaca´s wool, dry pumpkins, rocks, cane and much more. I just mention the most common and traditional materials used to elaborate our well known Nativity Scenes which are considered pieces of art and often shown in different museums and expositions around the world.

Nativity Scene made in Piedra de Huamanga
Nativity Scene made in Piedra de Huamanga
Retablo, made with Wood and beautifully decorated.
Retablo, made with Wood and beautifully decorated.
Nativity scene made with clay.
Nativity scene made with clay.

History of Nativity Scenes

It is believed that this tradition was popularized by Saint Francis of Asissi in 1223, at Greccio, Italy, in an attempt to place the emphasis of Christmas upon the worship of Christ rather than upon materialism and gift giving. Staged in a cave near Greccio, St. Francis' nativity scene was a living one with humans and animals cast in the Biblical roles, Pope Horious III gave his blessing to the exhibit so they became hugely popular and spread throughout Christendom. Within a hundred years every church in Italy was expected to have a nativity scene at Christmastime. Eventually, statues replaced human and animal participants, and static scenes grew to elaborate affairs with richly robed figurines placed in  landscape settings

Nativity sets usually have 3 different art forms represented in each scene. Each has a building of some sort, made from lumber or stone. This can look more like an alpine stable, a stable for animals, or stone ruins.  Each country or town elaborates their own set by choosing a traditional location. The second art form is that of the characters represented. These may be carved out of wood, made from Paper-mache, or clay, or sewn and fashioned from cloth, even hand-painted on bits of old cardboard. Each type has a 'character' all its own. The third type of art form represented is found in the scene painted in the nativity. This may be done very elaborately or may be very gross and lack detail.

As you see, Nativity Scenes have a long, long history but the most important thing is that at least we continue with this beautiful tradition.

The elements have changed through the time, also their meanings.  At the end, they all represent how baby Jesus came to the world.




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