Set beneath the impressive mountain of Puigsacalm in northern Catalonia, about seventy miles north of Barcelona, the village of Joanetes is nestled among patches of beech forest, scattered farmsteads, and fields dotted white with sheep and cows. Featuring all the elements of the long-standing nativity scene tradition of Catalonia, Joanetes looks as if it could have been the very town where Mary and Joseph sought a place to stay that first Christmas so many years ago.
So it’s no wonder that since 1983, Joanetes has been home to a sprawling, vibrant Living Nativity Scene. The village’s 325 inhabitants, along with at least that many people from other towns in the Vall d’en Bas municipality, work tirelessly from October to March to set up and then put away the event’s cabins, scenes, and pathways year after year. The spectacle’s statistics are outstanding: there are six months of preparation, 36 years of uninterrupted functions, 400 extras, 43 scenes over a 1.3-mile route, one 500-lightbulb star at 4,200 feet of altitude certified by the Guinness Book of World Records, 4,000 euros of the proceeds gifted to a local charity, and 10,000 visitors over three days. However, the true success of the Living Nativity Scene of Joanetes lies beyond these numbers. While it is many different things to the residents of Joanetes, all agree that it unites the youngest and the eldest in a single emotional connection that nurtures their social bond.
The Living Nativity Scene runs through Joanetes. “‘At the barbershop, the harvest happens all year round,’” says Lluís Juvanteny, also known as Nisu, the president of the Living Nativity Scene Association, using a local phrase to make his point. “Because long ago, the barbershop was where men shared their crew’s harvest exploits with those present at the shop. And then when the harvest season was over, men continued to boast about their feats for the rest of the year. This is why, in the barbershop, it was always harvest season. The same happens with the Living Nativity Scene of Joanetes. Whether or not it is the season, we end up talking about the Living Nativity Scene—winter, spring, summer, or fall.”
In 2020, however, with the COVID-19 pandemic, all anyone talked about in Joanetes was canceling the event, as everything about this tradition risks transmission of the virus.
“Christmas is coming, and we know we won’t be able to do it this year due to the health risks, but we still can’t stop talking about it,” said Roser Caparrós, a nurse who has seen the effects of the pandemic firsthand in the Vall d’en Bas home for the elderly. She shared her comments in a digital event set up by the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage to discuss the impacts of COVID on folk culture in the region. “The pandemic has fine-tuned our senses toward the real meanings of the Living Nativity Scene: it is a way for us to show our abilities, our surroundings, our landscape, our roots. It makes sense to us, so it makes us happy. It is much more than acting. It’s a spirit that unites us all.”
With all the talk of cancelation, it was as though the people of Joanetes were about to lose their grip. In this context, failing would mean that the community would lose touch with its defining tradition, and be left with little reason to engage with one another. Canceling would mean muting the community. When Nisu realized the high cost of hanging up the “canceled” sign, he hoped to spark the creative imagination of his team in order to put the event back on track.
As Nisu and his team sat down to reimagine the 2020 Living Nativity Scene, they knew it had to be an on-site event. However, for it to be approved by the health department, it also had to be a socially distanced one. “A drive-in Nativity Scene!” said Nisu, his eyes shining bright. “Because the roads in Joanetes loop around, a drive-in is easy enough to set up. All we need to do is guide the cars through town with white Christmas lights. We can have two or three showings a night!”
Even with this resolution, they needed to work out several important details. What were they going to show? Where were they going to project it? And what would the soundtrack be?
The Living Nativity Scene of the Past, Present, and Future
This year, unlike others, Melcior Puigdemont has not spent the month of November busily preparing the butcher’s scene. Nor has Àngel Verdaguer been setting up cabins every Saturday since the beginning of October. Pilar Fabregó has not been able to plan the decorations for her cabin. The same is true for the 396 other people who transform the village into various other scenes. Although it will be different this year, they now have an event to look forward to and a reason to get up from the Christmas table, just as they always have had.
The 2020 Nativity Scene is to start with a long-awaited dream of many Joanetes residents. Ever since July 25, 1992, when archer Antonio Rebollo lit the Olympic Cauldron of the XXV Barcelona Olympiad with a flaming arrow, the residents of Joanetes have dreamt of lighting their Guinness Record star with the same spellbinding act.
“This year’s production will start with the visual effect of a rocket shooting up to the rocky outcrop where the star sits,” says Nisu, relishing the magic of the moment in his imagination. “From afar, it will look like it hits and then lights the star. After all, we can’t begin the show without the lighting of the Christmas star!”
Joan Juvanteny, the blacksmith who gave form to Nisu’s vision by creating the star, has been looking forward to the day they could light it in such a dazzling way. Although he suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and may no longer be able to understand what he sees in this way, Mercè, his wife and memory, will.
With the star lit, the show will start by projecting a selection of images from all of the past thirty-six Living Nativity Scenes.
“In some of these old photos, there are scenes with friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and relatives who are no longer with us,” Nisu says. “While we may well be the only ones who have a shared memory of the people in the photo, we wish to honor them. In years past, when we were preparing the Living Nativity Scene, we would laugh about the joke Peter made one day, or how John fell, and we’d crack up every year. This year, though, the tribute is public. These are the men and women who started the Living Nativity Scene with us and who put their hearts and souls into it. They taught us their trades: charcoal burning, blacksmithing, the butchering of hogs. And these trades are the backbone of our Living Nativity Scene today.”
However, there will be images of the Nativity Scene of this year as well. “This year’s Holy Family will also be featured. We will build their hut and ask them to get dressed as Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Then, we will take some pictures and project them upon the façades as well,” says Nisu, thinking whether or not he has forgotten anyone in the 2020 production.
In the future, this year’s infant will be able to show off, like the other thirty-five children before him, for having been baby Jesus in the Living Nativity Scene of 2020.
The pictures will be projected upon the buildings that form Joanetes’ skyline. For the thirty-five-minute duration of the show, these houses—Can Andalt, Ca la Marina, Sant Romà, and Can Quel Mestre—will embody a composition of generations of Living Nativity Scene participants. This is, after all, the same thing has been happening every year since this tradition began. For every year, the Living Nativity textures the lives of those who inhabit these homes.
The Tolling of the Bells of Sant Romà
“Besides Christmas carols, we wanted to find some original music—music that wasn’t necessarily very well known, a solemn and powerful sound,” Nisu said. “That’s when we thought of inviting Xavier to ring our four bells.”
Xavier Pallàs i Mariani, violinist and bell ringer of Olot, first became fascinated by church bells when he was in the boys’ choir of Montserrat. He was no more than thirteen when he wrote a research essay on the bells and their ringing. Due to his interest, his teachers allowed him to climb up the bell tower at the monastery and he became struck for life.
“The reason I’m so fond of the bells in Joanetes is that Llorenç, the bell ringer, is still alive and remembers his strikes. He plays according to tradition, with strength, and using his entire body,” says Xavier in recognition of Llorenç’s skill and repertoire.
The bell tower of the church of Sant Romà de Joanetes is located on its western façade and sits above its central nave. The church is of Romanesque origin, but it is not known when its single nave was extended to include three naves with a single square apse. The bell inventories of 1591 and 1727 indicate that Sant Romà of Joanetes had four bells. It has maintained them to this day.
“Llorenç plays with both his feet and hands,” Xavier explains. “He is the only bell ringer in the county with such expertise. Most churches in [the surrounding county of] Garrotxa had four bells before the Civil War, but then they were melted down to aid in the war effort.”
So the value of the bells of Sant Romà lies in how many there are, not in their age. While the bells of Sant Romà de Joanetes are not from the Middle Ages, the bell ringers of Joanetes have not lost the tradition of playing four bells because the community has made sure to maintain four. The smallest bell, the oldest, dates to 1826. The other three were purchased at the Barberí foundry of Olot in 1948.
Xavier explained that, for many centuries, the tolling of bells had four basic functions. First, as a sacred object, a bell was used to praise God. It was believed that the sounds of bells made way for the prayers to reach the divine. The bells also marked the passing of time, signaling it was time to work, eat, and pray. They served to alert townspeople of dangers, and, finally, it was believed that the tolling of bells could break up storm clouds.
He went on to explain that even in the twentieth century, “when the fish truck arrived to town, the tolling of the bells indicated what type of fish it was carrying and how much it would cost. It really was a means of communication. One could glean a lot from the ringing of the bells!”
Nowadays, in the Vall d’en Bas, the bells toll automatically. Xavier is pleased because, he said, this means that bells are still part of the sound landscape of the area. However, the electrical bell tolling lacks the texture human bell ringers could offer based on the context and their inherited knowledge.
Some time ago, as Xavier was conducting an inventory of the bells of Garrotxa—what he thought of as his magnum opus—he visited all the bell towers of the area, big and small. He was dismayed to find such priceless musical instruments utterly abandoned. “Sometimes the bells were covered in bird excrement. On others, the mechanical devices [used to ring them] were so poorly installed they were damaging the bronze, and I wondered why. We no longer value this heritage,” Xavier concluded bluntly.
“Now I dream of starting a bell ringers’ school. In this way, there would be someone going up into the bell towers and regularly checking on these magnificent instruments. It could no longer be the daily ritual it once was, but if every town had someone going up the bell tower say, four times a year, it would really help. Of course, COVID-19 interfered,” said Xavier, understanding the need for patience.
When Nisu asked Xavier about recording him ringing the bells for the soundtrack of the Living Nativity Scene in 2020, Xavier was delighted. “The more people hear what bells can really sound like, the more they will value them and their sound,” he said.
There is no doubt that the 2020 Nativity Scene will be different. But this does not mean it will be less powerful.
The 2020 production of the Joanetes Living Nativity Scene honors the star and its maker; those who, by passing on their knowledge, have made the Living Nativity Scene sustainable; those whose turn it was to have their baby honored as “holy” and thus represent the future of the event; the town of Joanetes, as well as its bells and a lineage of bell ringers including Manel and Llorenç Llongarriu and Xavier Pallàs. In the pandemic, the Living Nativity Scene’s core team has decided to honor the people who sustain this tradition and the place that enables them to do it.
Meritxell Martín i Pardo is the lead researcher of SomVallBas project and research associate at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She has a degree in philosophy from the Autonomous University of Barcelona and a doctorate in religious studies from the University of Virginia.