Simple things say it’s Christmas on Tenerife to me . Things like the big green funfair wheel appearing in the harbour car park in Puerto de la Cruz or the fruit and veg having to make way for an aisle of turrón and sweets that turn to dust as soon as you bite into them.
One of the things I enjoy most is the appearance of belenes in shop windows, hotel lobbies, town halls, museums… everywhere.
Belenes are nativity scenes that can range from the classic basic – a few shepherds, Mary and Joseph, the baby Jesus, a donkey, an ox… you know, the main team – to whole towns with working parts that are populated by beautifully detailed mini people. The tradition of creating belenes at Christmas goes back to Italy and is said to have been started by St Francis of Assisi in 1233. It wasn’t until the 18th century that it caught on in Spain.
Traditionally belenes should appear from the 7th December.
Each year we go on a belen hunt on Tenerife. Hunt is maybe a bit of an exaggeration as there are hundreds of them across the island with some of the bigger towns having belen exhibitions and belen routes. We’ve seen crackers in Santa Cruz, Puerto de la Cruz and La Orotava where there are usually various belenes to seek out. In Santa Cruz there are good ones in the town hall and in the Meridiano shopping centre; in La Orotava they’re found in churches and even in the back room of an ironmonger’s shop. In Puerto de la Cruz there’s an exhibition in Casa Ventoso which is overlooked by many visitors because it’s hidden in a courtyard in a colonial building away from the busiest streets.
Although most belenes depict a Biblical scene some stray from the path. We’ve seen ones that had exquisite Italian characters as well as a few which feature Canarian towns. A few years ago in Garachico we saw one which was based around life in a Guanche village. Some are life-sized affairs.
The most magical of the belenes also change appearance as day quickly turns to night, when little houses light up and camp-fires give off a cosy glow.
It’s always worth taking time to look at the belenes on Tenerife closely. There is loads going on in the most detailed of them. Peek inside windows and you’ll see all sorts from abuelas baking bread whilst abuelos laze in bed to mothers breastfeeding their babies.
Best of all is el caganer, the guy who’s been caught short outside. To be fair to him, he’s not always caught short outside. Sometimes he is actually using a bona fide toilet and is simply the victim of a faulty door that swings open at an inconvenient moment.
Spotting el caganer adds a bit of (bare) cheeky fun to the whole thing and maybe I spend too much time looking for him than I do actually appreciating these lovingly created nativity scenes. But he is funny.
I’ve not spotted my first caganer of the season yet but I hope to rectify that over the next few days.
If you fancy going on a caganer… sorry, belen hunt on Tenerife you shouldn’t have to look too far as long as you’re staying in or near a traditional town –start with the town hall, or nearest church and take it from there. Lots of hotels have belenes but I’ve yet to see one that has the same charm and detail as those in the historic towns.
Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to lots of other places. Follow Jack on Google+