What Is A 'Nacimiento' In Latin America? 4 Facts About Catholic Nativity Scenes That Accompany Christmas Tree

What is a "Nacimiento" and why is it a tradition in Latin American Christmas trees? Shutterstock/ Smileus

Christmas is a holiday with special significance in Latin America, not just as a time for family but also a date of tremendous traditional and spiritual significance. One of the most important Catholic traditions is the "Nacimiento" or nativity scene. A nativity scene takes its inspiration from the accounts of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Luke describes an angel announcing the birth of Jesus to shepherds who then visit the humble site where Jesus is found lying in a manger.

Matthew speaks of "wise men" who follow a star to the house where Jesus dwelt, and indicates that the wise men found Jesus some time later, less than two years after his birth, rather than on the exact day. Matthew's account does not mention the angels and shepherds, while Luke's narrative is silent on the wise men and the star. Taking both of Matthew and Luke's accounts, nativity scenes usually have the Holy Family, shepherds, the wise men and an angel. Besides the key figures in the "nacimiento," here are 4 more facts about Catholic nativity scenes.

1. Baby Jesus Is Missing: Once the "nacimiento" is displayed, the star of the party, Christ himself, is absent from the scene. Baby Jesus is only placed in the scene on the night of the 24th, signifying his birth into the world: this in itself is an important ceremony. The figure of Jesus is often proportianately much larger than other figures, reflecting his significance.

2. Elaborate Figurines: The figurines of the Nativity Scene in Latin America are particularly elaborate and are often hand-made. In the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, the Monastery of El Carmen Bajo contains a nativity scene with over 500 figures dating back to the 17th Century! In Peru, figurines are often carved by Quechua Indians, while in Mexico the markets in the town of Tonala, Jalisco are entirely devoted to selling hand crafted figurines. 

3. Mexican Twist: While the nativity scene contains all the traditional elements of the Holy Family, Mexican nacimientos contain some unique elements. These include the Spanish moss, turkeys, women making tortillas, fish in a river (referent to a popular carol), a crowing rooster and even images of Lucifer, referencing his presence in the pastorelas.

4. Nacimientos All Over: In Latin American countries, nacimientos take on even greater importance than the Christmas tree. In Colombia, families gather around the nacimiento nightly to sing carols and pray. In Paraguay and Venezuela, the nativity scene is also the central focus of events, in both the Church and the home.

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Maria G. Valdez

Maria was born and raised in Dominican Republic, where she began her career in journalism covering human interest stories, entertainment, beauty and wellness for a national magazine. She moved to New York City to study Musical Theatre, but went back to journalism after graduating in an attempt of becoming the Latina Carrie Bradshaw. She has an unhealthy obsession with JLo and claims to be Sofia Vergara’s long-lost daughter, and has tried a crazy amount of treatments to keep looking young. She became a Zumba instructor for fun.