The Art of the Nacimiento

By Terry Gay Puckett

In Mexico during Christmas season, the nacimiento — the nativity scene representing the birth of Christ — is the center of the Mexican home.   More important than the Christmas tree, many of these nacimientos are not only complex, but captivating as well.  Handmade pieces used in these Christmas displays are saved from one year to the next, sometimes over generations, and added to, much as North Americans collect and save tree ornaments.

Sometimes a nacimiento will fill an entire room with little villages, buildings, trees, cacti, and twinkling lights; it may contain both small and large figures, spilling down the paths of manufactured hillsides.  Our personal nacimiento is arranged on elevated boxes covered with antique serapes, (woven wool cloths), with the central section elevated on a box that is covered with small serapes.  This central portion of the display is tightly grouped, like a crowd scene, with everyone loosely focusing on the center of interest — the Christ Child, El Niño.

The baby is usually installed in the manger at midnight on Christmas Eve, El Noche Bueno, by the youngest child. We have two baby Jesus arrangements in the center of our Nacimiento, so that neither grand daughter will be left out.  In Mexico, the baby is put in the middle of a rebozo (shawl) and rocked hammock style singing “A la Ruo Nino, duermete ya, ya…” after which the Christ Child is formally placed in the manger.

Tiny painted biblical figures in traje tipico (native Mexican dress) are the people in the diahrama. Mary, Joseph, shepards, angels, market vendors, devils, prophets, postmen, churches, animals of all sorts and horseback riders.  Los Tres Reyes (The Three Wisemen) ride on horse, camel and elephant march toward the center of interest.  Fish swim in ponds, cars traverse bridges, and long-legged birds walk among small and large cactus plants. Pigs are butchered, and snakes wiggle as bad boys throw rocks at them, ladies dance in China Poblana skirts while the mariachi bands play on. Angels watch over the scene and play harps, as they dangle from the chandelier. We usually display about 500 pieces at a time. It is a microcosm of what one might expect to see in a real live Mexican market at Christmas time.

People ask “Where do you find these things?”  My first nacimiento figures were Mary, Joseph and Jesus, plus a camel and a few sheep that my Mother put beneath our tree in Amarillo, Texas when I was a baby.  She was born on a South Texas ranch, and was very familiar with Mexican customs and the Spanish language.  She taught me to love it all, along with Mexican hot chocolate stirred with a cinnamon stick.

The best time to shop in Mexico for Nacimiento pieces is between Christmas Day and Dia de los Reyes (King’s Day, January 6th.). Val Alexander and I began trips to Mexico together in the 1980’s and we have bought pieces from most of the best markets.  Many of these places no longer exist, and the craftsmen are no longer working.  The old Monterrey market and Nuevo Laredo markets are gone.  I have not been to the new one in Monterrey to see what they have now.  The outdoor market above the town of San Miguel de Allende near the Gigante grocery store had quite a few good pieces in 2005, and probably still does. The San Luis Potosi Market was a great shopping place for Nacimientos many years ago, and figures spilled out into the streets. We have not been back there since. A few good pieces were captured in Matejuala. One has to drive up into the crowded streets of town, park, and walk around to the stalls of the various vendors to buy them.

During the season, you will find people selling wonderful pieces on the roadside.  One of my favorites was found at a traffic round about outside of Guanajuato.  It depicts Mary washing Jesus’ diapers, all hung on a clothes line, as Jesus kicks his heels and smiles sweetly up at his mother.

A bevy of handmade snakes was discovered in Tonala.  I also bought several sets that were rather typical of the region there. Guadalajara was a treasure trove of wonderful figures of every sort. Talaquapaque was the best shopping of all, and many of the pieces that are imported all over Mexico are originally made there.

January 6th, the festival day of  Dia de los Reyes, is wonderful time to entertain, and I love to have Nacimiento viewing parties for my friends.  I make Tres Leches cake and put a plastic baby in it.  The person who finds it gets luck in the New Year.

Putting up the scene and taking it down is a labor of love, and the display needs to be shared, because it is no small fete to organize.  For me, it is a visual gift to share with friends and family. What better way to celebrate Christmas than this; a festive depiction of the birth of the Savior, El Nino, Jesus Christo.

In January of 2008, before packing the Nacimiento up until the next year, I thought of a gift that a deceased friend had given me, a package of small handmade papers with decaled edges.  Elegant and beautifully make, I had never thought of what I should paint on them.  Suddenly it dawned on me that the miniature nacimiento figures would be perfect.  I had already used a few nacimientos as Christmas cards. By August of 2008 I had painted 35 of them, and was still going.  Not wanting to part with the originals, I made prints for sale at several high end art shows. I am going to continue designing more each year. If you would like to see them please check my website http://terrygaypuckett.com – go to portfolio, and scroll to the Nacimiento category.

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