Like many refugees from the more materialistic British Christmas, I love to spend the season of goodwill in Vejer. Rather than struggling to heap up extravagant gifts for ever more demanding youngsters, or toiling over a giant turkey roast, it's relaxing to be in a place where Christmas is a bit more about community and family. The little town is bright with lights and Christmas music will play throughout the Christmas season. These are things we can all share, and the streets are crowded with people, not stressing about finding that final gift but enjoying a celebratory outing with family and friends. Gifts are not exchanged until January 6th, leaving Christmas itself free for socialising.
Two street events dominate the run-up to Christmas: the Zambombá and the Living Nativity. The Zambombá is a social event which often takes place in the late afternoon. The traditional format includes a brazier to keep participants warm, food, sometimes complementary, and live performance of popular Christmas songs. If you are lucky, you could even see the eccentric musical instrument the event is named after, the Zambombá, a kind of friction drum which in German-speaking countries is delightfully named the Rummelpott. The up-and-down action of this instrument can cause hilarity among foreign visitors, but it's fascinating to visit a traditional zambombá where this unique sound can be heard.
The main event, however, involves the streets of the old town and most of its inhabitants in a recreation of the entire town of Bethlehem, with its craftspeople, animals, and of course, its Holy Family. King Herod, accompanied by a bevy of dancers, Pontius Pilate with his Roman soldiers and the Three Kings are all depicted, despite the fact that they don't appear in the accounts of Christ's birth which appear in the gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew.
The tradition of the nativity seems to have started in the thirteenth century, with St. Francis of Assisi. The saint deplored the materialism and commercialisation of Christmas celebrations and wanted to
put the emphasis back onto the spritual meaning of the Christian festival, suggesting that nothing much has changed in seven hundred years. The first nativities were, as Vejer's, living nativities which involved animals and children, mobilising most of the resources of the medieval village.
Since then, the nativity has become a popular event in every Christian country, though its form has evolved differently according to the cultures which presented it. While northern countries adopted the theatrical tradition of the medieval mystery plays, the living nativity has remained popular in southern Europe and the Spanish and Italian versions are regularly presented on television.
Both Vejer and Medina Sidonia present living nativities and both are well worth seeing for anyone, religious or not, who wants to experience the rich and vibrant culture of out town and to enjoy the wit and creativity of its inhabitants.