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It's nowhere near Christmas in Spain yet. There are signs though. On the telly there is an IKEA ad with a Christmas theme as well as a mobile phone ad with a bloke in a yellow Santa suit. In a shop close by, Ale Hop, they have a blow up Christmas tree for sale.

But this year I was determined not to be caught unawares.

One of the Christmas traditions here is the Belén. The word means Bethlehem but it's actually a representation of the birth of Jesus with Mary, Joseph, the Wise men, the shepherds etc.

We've got a Belén. The stable we bought in a Carrefour supermarket and the majority of the figures in a cheapy cheap Chinese shop. I've hankered after a better version for years but usually I leave it too late. By the time we get around to visiting one of the Christmas markets where the hand crafted key figures and all the trappings are on sale we've already put up the Christmas tree, laid out our Belén and dusted off the seasonal CDs.

Maggie isn't keen on the Belenes; a bit over religious for her tastes and definitely overpriced. So I show interest as we pass one of the Belén stalls, Maggie points out the cost, reminds me we have a Belén and I lose my resolve. But last year I put a note in my diary to remind me to find a Belén early. Now in fact. And yesterday I went down to the craft shop run by the local authority that acts as a showcase for local craftspeople and checked what they had on offer.

I was quite taken by a strange, surrealistic Belén which included all the necessary figures including flocks of sheep and gawping bystanders. The trouble was that it was complete and that's not the point. The idea is that you start with the key figures and then every year you add something or someone else. Often the family Belén is built up whilst the children of the family are still children. A bit like opening the advent calendar or buying some new baubles for the tree; part of the traditional run up to Christmas. It's common too for the grandparents to be the ones who pay.

The nacimiento, the centre of any Belén features Mary, Joseph, Jesus, an angel a donkey and a cow. Out of the traditional figures I liked sets made by two cousins who originally worked together but who, after a bit of a falling out, set up separate workshops. And, finally I bought figures made by J.F. de Griñan who, according to the chap in the shop, is pretty famous amongst Belén makers.

I've left the note in my diary for next year - the Three Wise Men? The shepherds?


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