A small village on the lower slopes of the Sierra de Mollina some 65 kilometres inland from Malaga and 3,600 from the Holy Land itself is an unlikely spot to choose to re-create Bethlehem but that is exactly what the citizens of Mollina, with the help of the Diaz Caballero foundation, decided they were going to do.
Mollina dates from the 16th century. It grew up around the Convent de la Ascension and the church of San Cayetano built in the late 17th century. The population were farmers, ancestors of the beneficiaries of the Crown's largesse following the reconquest when arable land was parcelled off to the victors. The primary crop then was olives and so productive were the olive groves that the name of the church was changed to Nuestra Señora de la Oliva. These days the main crop is the vine. Mollina produces about 80% of the wine made in Malaga province.
The villagers did not exactly replicate Bethlehem of course, rather they set about collecting the dioramas that are called, in Spanish, Belén.
A Belén is a Nativity Scene. The word means Bethlehem, since a Spanish Christmas scene includes the entire town of Bethlehem and what often looks like all of Judea. In addition to angels and shepherds and sheep, there are farmers with their ploughs, hunters with strings of game, washerwomen washing and bakers baking. There are caves and houses and temples, rocks and streams and mountains. Off in the distance, there are the Magi on their camels, and sometimes you will see the soldiers of Herod, ominously advancing with their swords drawn. All the while, children like small lambs dance through the scenes, bringing their offerings to the Child, the Niño, who sleeps in a straw-filled manger under the gaze of his adoring Mother and the vigilant St. Joseph.
The tradition is thought to have been started by St. Francis who is credited with creating the first nativity scene in Greccio, Italy in 1223. The custom soon spread to Spain where it underwent many changes, becoming larger, more intricate and allowing for artistic licence in the interpretation of the scene. For the last 800 years skilled manufacturers have been producing nativity scenes to delight children and adults alike.
Now in the small village of Mollina between Antequerra and Fuente de Pedra you can see a collection, reported to be the largest in the world, of belen created by famous Spanish manufacturers from all corners of Spain. There are 60 scenes on display around three huge creations. One representing the eight provinces of Andalucia is 25 metres long and was created by Vicente Martinez. The newly opened (December 2017) Museo de Belenes is already attracting large numbers of visitors.
The museum is open all year. You are advised to book through the website museodebelenes.com if you plan to visit during the Christmas period. Your kids will love you for it.