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The Manger in the Nativity Scene exhibited at the National Museum of Sculpture in Valladolid


by Rose Maramba

Spain is Catholic, historically and culturally. Moreover – and this might come as a surprise to some – the Catholics still maintain a slim majority over the sum total of the irreligious and the followers of other religions.

Be that as it may, in the post-Franco era (the Franco dictatorship ended at his death in 1975), secularism has been steadily gaining ground. Conversely, the importance of the Catholic religion in the lives of the españoles has been diminishing. One might say, at an alarming rate. The 2018 estimate of the Spanish Center for Sociological Research (Spanish initials: CIS) put the percentage of self-avowed Catholics at 68.5%, the irreligious at 16.8% and the atheists at 9.6%. Two point six percent (2.6%) profess a different religion.

Iglesia de San Jose on Calle de Alcala, Madrid: 36% of the Spanish Catholics never go to mass, 20.8% barely ever

Only three years later, in September 2021, the CIS has estimated that 57.4% of Spaniards self-identify as Catholics, (18.4% define themselves as practicing; 39% as not practicing), 2.5% as followers of other faiths, 14.6% as atheists, 12.9% as agnostics, and 11.4% as non-believers.

In July of the same year, a CIS study showed that of the Spaniards who identify themselves as Catholics, 36% never attend mass, 20.8% barely ever attend mass, 19% attend mass a few times a year, 6.8% two or three times a month, 13.4% every Sunday and holidays, and 2.9% multiple times a week.

Then why, despite the steady waning of Catholicism, are the belenes (Nativity scenes) still profoundly popular in Spain? First, because as said, Spain is culturally Catholic and the belenes during the Christmas season are a symbol of the Catholic culture. Secondly, The Spanish nation-state was built by Their Catholic Majesties, Queen Isabella I of Castille and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, upon the Catholic faith. Far from being eradicated, the Catholic religion – though perhaps not Catholic religiosity –  still provides a solid underpinning for the Spanish national identity.

More than any of the other lovely symbols of Christmas, like Santa, the belen best expresses the Spaniards’ concept of Navidad

One might even go so far as to say that even with today’s secularism, the Catholic faith is part and parcel of the national psyche. As such, it is responsible for the conscious or unconscious mental, emotional, and behavioral responses of the Spaniards to their social and physical environment. That should explain – or at least help to explain – their fondness for the Nativity Scene.

More than any of the other lovely symbols of Christmas, like the Christmas Tree, Santa Claus or the colorful wreaths, the belen best expresses the Spaniards’ concept of Navidad because of its close interlink with one of the basic tenets of the Catholic religion: Jesus is the Messiah that the Scripture in the Old Testament prophesied. He was born of Virgin Mary to liberate mankind from the bonds of evil and death.

In 2008, which isn’t that long ago, 73% of the españoles believed in the historicity of Jesus as against the 13% who didn’t; 47% believed Jesus is the Son of God as against the 25% who didn’t; 41% believed in His virgin birth and as many didn’t; and 45% believed the Three Kings visited Him, as against the 35% who didn’t. (Source: Wikipedia)

Thanks to the Spanish partiality to the belenes, many of the scenes are amazing works of art and visiting them is a source of immense pleasure.  It is also a sure way of immersing oneself in the spirit of Spanish Navidad, whether as an avowed practicing Catholic or an atheist. In Spain, Christmas is no Christmas without these.




At the Cathedral in Leon, 2013


Nueva de Llanes, Asturias, 2015










At the Ermita de Nuestra Señora del Rosario, Seville, 2017


Donostia (San Sebastian), 2012









At the Church of the Santo Apostol, Seville, 2019







At the Church of Santa Maria de los Reyes de Laguardia, Alava, 2010







At the Pamplona Cathedral, 2020,




Featured image photographed by Nicolas Perez, 2009,  CC BY-SA4.0 via Wikimedia
Iglesia de San Jose/Luis Garcia. CC BY-SA4.0
Santa Claus/Virginia State Parks, CC BY2.0
> Leon/Turol Jones, CC BY2.0
> Nueva de Llanes,Asturias/ECS33592 via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA4.0
> Ermita de Nuestra Señora del Rosario, Seville/CarlosVdelHabsburgo, CC BY-SA4.0
> Donostia/Joxemai, CC BY-SA3.0
> Pamplona/JLVwiki, CC BY-SA4.0