Whatever you call them – creches, nativity scenes or nacimientos – these assemblages of statues are springing up all over town.
Some are public, sponsored by churches or in front yards. The vast majority are inside private homes.
The basic figures include the Holy Family, shepherds, and the three wise men. From there on, one can add barnyard animals, sheep, camels and other actors in the familiar narrative.
Different households preserve their own special customs. I interviewed one family who started off with the shepherds. Then Mary and Joseph appeared, and on Christmas, the Baby Jesus. At about that time, the Three Kings showed up on the TV set across the room, and slowly moved toward the manger, arriving on Jan. 6.
In my family, there must be a sprig of rosemary in the manger, because, as my mother told me, there was rosemary in the original stable, and when the Virgin’s blue dress brushed against the plant, it broke out in blue flowers. In many families, including ours, the Baby Jesus is placed in the manger after midnight on Christmas Eve.
In the classic Mexican tradition, things do not end at Christmas. On Jan. 6, the day of the three kings, some families hold a fiesta at which a ring-shaped cake may be served. This cake has several images of the Baby Jesus baked in it, and the people who get the images have the obligation to provide new clothes for the Child, and organize the next fiesta, held on Feb. 2. That day, called Candlemas or el día de la Candelaria, signals the end of the Christmas season. After that, the nacimiento comes down until next year.
I’ll only mention two of Tucson’s many public nacimientos.
In the east transept of San Xavier mission is an O’odham nacimiento. The dark-skinned holy family is under a ramada, with native pottery and baskets on the ground. The Baby Jesus lies in a hanging cradle with a string leading to the edge of the altar. People may pause, say a prayer, pull the string, and rock the Baby. This lovely scene is the work of Tom Franko of San Xavier Village.
Perhaps the most elaborate nacimiento in Tucson is in the Casa Cordoba at the Tucson Museum of Art. The work of Maria Luisa Tena, it fills an entire room. In addition to the usual figures, it has vignettes from the Old and New Testaments, an Indian pueblo, a Mexican market, the Virgin of Guadalupe and countless other details. One can literally spend hours looking at it. A key is posted on a nearby wall. For hours, call 624-2333.