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Sunlit mountain, with roofs of homes and a bell tower peaking through the trees.

The Joanetes landscape fits the Catalan imaginary of the place where Joseph and Mary found refuge that first Christmas night: fields, cattle, farmhouses, farmers, shepherds, streams, bell towers, bells, and the mountain just behind. Although we don’t see any caves—where Catalan imagery situates the birth of Jesus—it is easy to imagine there would be some in this area. Right next to the antenna, if you look closely, you’ll see the Christmas star. Photo courtesy of Meritxell Martín i Pardo

  • Christmas Runs through Joanetes: A Village Nativity Scene Lives on in the Pandemic

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    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.

    Man standing in an open green field, pointing toward the town and mountains behind him.
    Lluís Juvanteny aka Nisu stands on the field where the cars will park for the Living Nativity Scene, pointing to the skyline of Joanetes.
    Photo courtesy of Meritxell Martín i Pardo

    “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?

    Flyer for Living Nativity event in 2019, with text in Catalan language. Illustration of two kids and a sheep watching a shooting star.
    In the flyer for the 2019 event, artist Janina Bach transmits how these real and fictional characters are carried away by the magic of the star, the cold of the night, and the warmth of the Living Nativity Scene of Joanetes.
    Design by Janina Bach, Nina Bach Ilustrations
    Flyer for Living Nativity event in 2020, with text in Catalan language. Illustration of cars parked around an illuminated church under a shooting star.
    Ferran Curós designed the 2020 Living Nativity Scene poster. While the star continues to have a special place, his poster highlights the Joanetes skyline, especially the bell tower of Sant Romà and the cars from which the attendees will follow this year’s event.
    Design by Ferran Curós

    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.

    Metal scaffolding in the shape of a giant shooting star standing at the top of a hill.
    When the star was built in 1993, a notary certified that at 139.43 feet wide and 39.37 feet high, it was the largest Christmas star in the world. Whether or not it still holds the record, this star gives meaning to the 400 extras in the Living Nativity Scene, from the charcoal burners to the confectioners. Nisu dreamed of it, the blacksmith designed it; some thought it was crazy, others immediately rallied behind the idea, and twenty-seven years later the star symbolizes the emotional connection of the people of Joanetes.
    Photo courtesy of Meritxell Martín i Pardo

    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.

    At night, a line of people holding lights in front of a church.
    On the night of the St. Stephen Feast, or December 26, 2019, the Living Nativity Scene of Joanetes was a thriving and healthy living tradition. Visitors likely numbered in the thousands, and the organizers were very proud of it. 2020 has shaken many well-established traditions.
    Photo courtesy of Meritxell Martín i Pardo
    At night, four men standing around a huge piece of raw meat on a picnic table. Two men are in red elf hats.
    The Puigdemont family has been taking care of the slaughter of the hog scene for years now.
    Photo courtesy of Meritxell Martín i Pardo
    At night, a family works in an outdoor home scene.
    The Cabañes family chooses the best dried beans.
    Photo courtesy of Meritxell Martín i Pardo
    At night, people sit around an outcropping of rock, some chiseling away.
    The stonemasons scene is usually taken care of by the Vilà family.
    Photo courtesy of Meritxell Martín i Pardo
    At night, three people on horses in wigs and beard, one in blackface, and two people standing between them.
    The Magi are also an important scene in the Living Nativity Scene of Joanetes.
    Photo courtesy of Meritxell Martín i Pardo
    At night, a man milks a cow while a woman holds its reins.
    The Juvanteny Colomer family milks the cow.
    Photo courtesy of Meritxell Martín i Pardo
    At night, a woman holds a baby next to a manger. A man on the other side holds a staff.
    The 2019 Holy Family
    Photo courtesy of Meritxell Martín i Pardo
    At night, a family gathers in an outdoor home scene, with a pen of goats to the right.
    The Llorenç family has a little herd of goats and sheep.
    Photo courtesy of Meritxell Martín i Pardo
    At night, men stand on either side of an anvil, next to a bright fire and rack of tools, under a row of horseshoes hung from a rafter. A horse watches them.
    The Salgueda blacksmith, apprentice of Joan Juvanteny, is now in charge of working the iron with fire in the Living Nativity Scene.
    Photo courtesy of Meritxell Martín i Pardo
    At night, men and women in a room of woodworking tools and products.
    The Turón i Casanova carpenters fix and make furniture.
    Photo courtesy of Meritxell Martín i Pardo

    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 Llongarriu, the bell ringer of Joanetes, learned his skill from his father, Manel Llongarriu. Here he plays the Baptismal Toll, with the strings of the bells directly to his body.

    “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!”

    Xavier Pallàs plays the Celebratory Toll, which, he explains, is more complex. On the eve of the holiday, the bells usually tolled for half an hour to remind their communities that the following day was an important one.

    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.

    View of a line of cars at dusk on a one-lane road, from inside another car.
    It’s not a traffic jam in downtown Joanetes. No, it’s the Auto-Nativity Scene of Light and Sound on December 26, 2020.
    Photo by Meritxell Martín i Pardo
    View of a line of cars at dusk on a one-lane road. A group of people speak with the driver of one car.
    A few members of the Joanetes Nativity Scene community are selling tickets, and they are quite busy. They look happy to be outside, giving change and instructions—for example, to tune into 107.7 FM to listen to the show. Everyone seems happy to be busy.
    Photo by Meritxell Martín i Pardo
    Rows of cars parked on a grassy field at dusk.
    The cars are parked and ready for the Auto-Nativity scene.
    Photo by Meritxell Martín i Pardo
    View from the parked cars: a projection of a man on the side of a church building. In the distance, an illuminated shooting star on the ridge of a mountain.
    The Christmas star is already lit when the cars arrive. There were major technical problems that prevented the realization of their dream still. The president of the Association of the Living Nativity Scene of Joanetes, Nisu, greets the attendees to the 2020 show to wish us happy holidays.
    Photo by Meritxell Martín i Pardo
    Same scene as the previous image, with a different projection.
    Next, Xavier Pallàs video is projected on Can Andalt playing the Celebration Toll. With this, the show begins.
    Photo by Meritxell Martín i Pardo
    Same scene as the previous image, with a different projection.
    It is a show where both the tolling of the bells and their image mark the entry and exit passage of the Christmas prints projected on the Joanetes skyline.
    Photo by Meritxell Martín i Pardo
    Same scene as the previous image, with a different projection.
    Every Christmas print has a theme: the process of the wool, the use of water, planting, harvesting, slaughtering. The narrative, written by Roser Caparrós, is delightful and filled with words we no longer hear too often. The story is held together with the help of one image, that of sparks. She begins each Christmas print with the word “sparks” followed by another word that gives coherence to the images chosen—sparks of emotions, of memories, of history. The lights and sound effects designed by La Caraba Productions of Olot keep the show cohesive.
    Photo by Meritxell Martín i Pardo
    In the foreground, coils of sausage cooking on a firepit; in the background, two men tend another fire.
    To celebrate the success of passing the pandemic test, some members of team put the sausages from the 2019 slaugther on the embers.
    Photo by Meritxell Martín i Pardo

    This video shows how the tolling of the bells wrap each Christmas print into a coherent and cohesive unit.

    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.

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