Friday, December 23, 2011

No Purple Creches... So Far

When I was a little boy living on Long Island in the suburbs east of New York City, we had very good family friends named the Spinellis. Mrs. Spinelli had a thing for purple. Their house was painted shades of purple inside and out. Mr. Spinelli bought Mrs. Spinelli a new Cadillac for her birthday one year and he made the mistake of surprising her with a white one. She made him take it back. So, to say she was obsessed with the color would be an understatement. My sister, Dale, loved our Christmas visits to the Spinellis. She would explore the purple house and I would follow her around.  My parents found it all somewhat peculiar.

Sitting in a space between the Spinelli's purple living room and purple dining room, settled into the purple wall-to-wall carpeting, next to the purple sofa, was a purple-flocked Christmas tree strung with purple lights, and adorned with purple glass ornaments and purple garland. Even I found it to be a bit much. And I was only 4 the last time we saw them. Under the tree, Mrs. Spinelli had placed a large and exceptionally ornate creche. It was elegant and beautifully arranged with all the members of the holy family, the magi, the animals, and more. And it had been spray-painted entirely in purple. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! I found the purple-faced Baby Jesus especially disturbing.


Sevilla is filled with more nativity scenes (called belén) than I have ever seen, but I have still not come across a purple one. I've seen dozens, I'm sure, and the level of detail is phenomenal. Since our arrival in July, we had noticed stores around town that specialize in the components, but we could never have anticipated what it would be like at Christmas. Every church has a belén. Many stores, including El Corte Inglés, as well. And private homes proudly display their own — many handmade.




On our walk to see the lights the other night, we came upon a large market in the streets next to the Cathedral. It is the 18th Annual Belén Market of Sevilla and 15 different companies are represented with 29 booths. The variety, the choices, the craftsmanship... absolutely phenomenal. There were booths specializing only in animals. Booths specializing in the Three Wise Men (none climbing ladders).  Booths with only trees of all shapes and sizes. Others specialized in stables and architecture. And still others had lifelike mechanical figures.



Now, as you may already know, I am not religious. As a matter of fact, and I know I've told you this before, organized religion makes me excruciatingly uncomfortable. But, I have been fascinated by the cultural aspects of Catholicism in Spain, and I have found myself interested in their religious traditions, especially since the strong Catholic culture here does not deny me, a gay man, the rights given to all other people living in this country. Jerry and I are a married couple. Unlike in the United States, we are legally recognized as such everywhere in Spain. Unlike in the United States, I and everyone I encounter refer to us as maridos (husbands) and it no longer sounds odd to me when I hear it said. I have never before lived in an environment where I have felt completely safe, comfortable, and — dare I say it — NORMAL. Not even when we lived in San Francisco.


Yes, I am always aware of the history of Catholicism in Spain. And I am cognizant of the fact that the Catholic culture in Spain developed over the centuries largely out of repression and brutality. But, at least for the present, it is not acceptable in Spain to publicly demean gay people or to deny gay people equal rights (as it is acceptable, and common, in the United States to do).


But I digress. I will now step down from my soap box and tell you simply that, because I am treated so well in this culturally Catholic country, I find myself much more open to the beauty of the religious traditions. And the belén are beautiful.  Of course, I'm more fascinated by the individual pieces than by the nativity scenes themselves.


While Jerry and I were running errands in the neighborhood this afternoon, we passed an elegant house with a doctor's shingle out front. As we walked by, we noticed through the front grillwork an incredible belén filling the entire foyer. A woman appeared to be closing up for the day and saw us through the door. She immediately unlocked the gate and invited us in to see it. I asked permission and then snapped a quick photo with my phone. We were embarrassed and didn't stay long, but she was so gracious that I'm sure we could have spent as much time as we liked. And I could have spent hours. It looked like someone had reproduced the entire town of Bethlehem. Mrs. Spinelli probably wouldn't have liked it. Very little purple.


  1. Watch out, the Church will get you with their beauty. I find myself going back to my old church because it's older and more ornate than the new one that was built just last year. If anything, it's a great place to meditate. Which I find myself doing more than praying these days. You should try attending a Mass just for the atmosphere. You don't have to believe in anything to attend. It's just a nice quiet place to think.
    My favorite pieces were those three wise men and I can see why they would be so expensive. Fred would buy every single piece in that marketplace.

  2. What beauty! Would never see this over here...Peace and Joy to you and Jerry!

  3. LOL at Mrs Spinelli and the purple Jesus. I can imagine the 4 year old Mitch's reaction. She sounds a bit on the nutso side, I have to say. Mr Spinelli must have been very tolerant! When I was younger I adored purple - for clothing and jewellery (I still adore amethysts) ONLY. And a purple car is just wrong.

    As for religion, even though I don't call myself an atheist (because I don't need to be labelled for NOT believing in something)I have never believed in any sort of "higher power", or a god, even as a child. It just didn't make sense to me. But that doesn't stop me being very interested in religion(s) and appreciating the beauty of religious art and ritual. I even attend church services now and then just to appreciate the ritual and atmosphere.

  4. I am so happy that you and Jerry are considered a normal married couple. Oh, how I wish that it were that way in the U.S.

    And the artwork in the nativity scenes is beautiful. No cheap plastic there. Sevilla is truly an amazing place.

  5. It must feel absolutely wonderful to walk around with your husband without the fear of ridicule, or even violence. I've always been fascinated with the Italian culture, but your blog is making me pine for Spain. Maybe I'll look into retiring there. It's still many years away, but it sounds so nice there. I did take Spanish for a semester in the seventh grade. That's enough right?

  6. LOL at me - sorry Mitch. I didn't mean to make my comment all about me - by coincidence I'd just been discussing religion and then I read your post and it struck a chord.

    I am so glad you and Jerry feel so comfortable and accepted in Spain - it should be like that everywhere. Happy Christmas to you and Jerry, Mitch.

  7. Merry Christmas, Mrrs. Jerry and Mitchell,
    Love tim

  8. I'm with Judith!

    Churches, the fancier and more ancient the ceremony the better, are fascinating places the way seeing how aliens think and live would be fascinating. Like Judith I'm not an "atheist" in that I don't lack religion any more than I might lack a left-handed frog who can ride a unicycle while making put-put-put sounds. I'm just not a "theist".

    Soak up the atmosphere - and take the following in the sense of a pragmatic seasonal compromise - Merry Christmas!

  9. Mark:
    Mass is a bit too much for me, except for a brief glimpse, but I have loved those rare opportunities of solitude inside a church or temple.

    I have been so tempted to buy some of these beautiful figures. Maybe I'll just take up sculpting again and make them myself!

  10. sophie...^5(ron):
    It's very distinctively Spanish. And I love that fact. Same good wishes to you and Jim and, of course, Sophie!

  11. Judith:
    What I love most about the comments is what I learn about those making the comments, so don't apologize for that! Check out my post from November where I talk about being an unlabeled Atheist!

    As for Mr. Spinelli's tolerance... they were divorced a few years later and Mrs. Spinelli moved to Florida. I don't know if she took the holy purple family with her.

    A very happy Christmas to you!

  12. Theaterdog:
    Feliz Navidad a vosotros!

  13. The Owl Wood:
    Oh, to have a mind like yours. I've never known anyone to come up with the idea of "a left-handed frog who can ride a unicycle while making put-put-put sounds."

    We obviously worship at the same "church." But, what the hell, Happy Christmas!

  14. Jo:
    This sense of belonging is something I've never experienced before. I suppose it shouldn't matter, but it does!

    I'm sure I could find some tacky plastic to share!

  15. Archguy:
    I had 7 years of Spanish and have plenty of comic moments here. Jerry only had one semester (or maybe a year) of Spanish in college and he's picking it up (with many comic moments). I'm sure you'll do fine. I spent some time in Italy during college and after. I loved it there but am really happy we chose Spain ... and specifically Sevilla.

  16. That's quite a big business over there.

    Not my cup of tea......I've never had a Nativity scene in any of my houses.....but they are beautiful to see.

    Merry Christmas [Feliz Navidad] Mitch!

  17. Bob:
    If I ever started collecting these, I'd build an entire city filled with people and animals and there would be no Nativity scene. Merry Christmas to you, too!

  18. I like that first one, the one over the Mercadona -- it looks exactly like a 1920s sage set which I suspect it was probably modeled on. But they are all very interesting and some beautiful -- purple or not!

  19. You are a wonderful story teller Mitchell! Mrs.Spinelli sounded like quite the character! ....especially when you were a kid!

    Having been brought up in the RC Church I remember how good it would feel in church. It was a great escape for me at the time. I really do hope the Church 'finds itself' eventually mainly because it gives a lot of people solace and even more people would as well if it modernized. Ooops! I just pushed you off the soap bow! Sorry! lol

  20. John Gray:
    Ac yr un peth i chi, John! Mae fy nghalon yn gyda chi. (And I hope I didn't just say I want to have your baby!)

  21. Will:
    You are definitely right about the one at the Mercadona. I wonder what the vintage is. I still haven't checked out the one in the convent next door. It's clearly a very popular stop right now.

  22. Jim:
    Thanks! Oh, I have a very large soap box. There's room for us both; no problem.

  23. We have two creches. One is a plastic one that a favorite neighbor gave Bing when she was a child. The other is a very elaborate one.My mother bought all four of her daughters the same one. Every year when I put it out (complete with a long sheath of white cotton ball fabric studded with what look to be cloves..), Liv puts the wise men on the far side of the fire place and day by day she inches them closer to baby jesus just as I did when I was little.

    I'm not one for organized religion either although I was raised in a devout catholic family. But, I am big on tradition.

  24. Have a very Happy Holiday Season!

  25. Maria:
    I love the thought of the wise men inching closer every day. THEY are the big deal here.

    Wishing you, Bing, and Liv a wonderful Christmas Day with your friends, family, and neighbors.

  26. FDeF:
    Wishing you very happy holidays!


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