Friday, January 7, 2011

Irene’s Family Treasure: El Pesebre

You’ve stored your Christmas things until next year, but Irene MacDonald hasn’t even thought of taking down her family treasure, El Pesebre (The Manger), that takes up a large part of their living room.

El Pesebre is a handmade depiction of the Nativity Scene and the town of Bethlehem. Irene’s hands—with the help of those of Jim, her husband—assemble the tableau in mid-December every year. They’re carrying on a tradition that dates back to Irene’s Catalan (Barcelona, Spain) family living in Colombia, South America, and subsequently in the United States.

“My father started El Pesebre about 60 years ago,” Irene explained, pointing to a bridge that her dad made of cardboard, small stones, and glue. “My mother set up the first one in the U.S. on the top of our piano about 30 years ago. The town has grown over the years—from the piano to a small table to its current base, a 4x6-foot piece of plywood.”

Irene pointed out that she and Jim collect raw materials for the village all year in her yard and neighborhood—moss, sand, rocks and stones, bark, clippings of boxwood, yew, and arborvitae and small flowers, which she dries, to incorporate into the town as greenery—fields, trees, even a small garden. The walls and roof of the stable of the Nativity Scene is cork bought in Spain more than 40 years ago. Sycamore and birch bark serve as waterless waterways. An unusual feature is several small “villages” carved out of the tops of fungi from Germany.

In a way, some of the yearly additions from the yard—the greenery—the moss and the shrub and tree clippings—limit how long Irene keeps El Pesebre on exhibit. “They’ve been up for more than three weeks,” Irene said, “and still are quite green, but come back in a week or two and you’ll see how much they have dried out. I’ll take it down then, probably late in January.”

Taking things down is the easy part, I thought. How long did it take to put up?

“Oh, about five days, more or less” Irene replied. “A lot depends on what fresh things are available—and how much time I have. There are so many variables. El Pesebre is different in some way every year.”

“Our daughter, Anastasia, spent a semester in Barcelona and was there at the time of the annual Christmas market in the square by the cathedral and bought us something we never had before, resting sheep,” Irene said. “That’s where people in Spain get figurines for their exhibits. I want original pieces, not plastic. It’s hard to find additions that are to scale.”

Irene gave Ellen and me a “guided tour” of El Pesebre on January 6, the day Irene added the last three figures to the manger scene for this Christmas season. “I follow the traditional date for the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, which celebrates the arrival of the Magi—the three kings—in Bethlehem.”

Anyone seeing El Pesebre before January 6 would have seen the Magi on camels en route and mostly out of sight. But on January 6 the scene was complete. The Magi had arrived at the manger.

Hmmm, so much for taking down decorations on January 1.


  1. thank you so much for sharing this-it was exquisite-I go to the Y with a friend of Irene's (Cheryl) and she had jsut told me of the presebe Fri so this was a real treat to see it! Kudos, Irene-the care, patience and delicate touches to the scene is inspiring! AnneRoy

  2. sorry- I spelt El Pesebre incorrectly-I switch letters a lot! Anne

  3. Thanks for this article. I love the tradition and the authentic components.