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Ricardo Fernández Gracia, Professor of Art History, University of Navarra, Spain

Franciscan tradition and Christmas in Navarre

Thu, 07 Jan 2010 08:58:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

The figure of St. Francis of Assisi stands out in the origin of nativity scenes and some Christmas traditions in Europe.

In a biography of the saint written in the second half of the 14th century that is known as the Little Flowers (Fioretti), it is related how the poverello prepared the manger in Greccio on Christmas night, staging the birth of Christ to experience with his own eyes "what he suffered in his invalidity as a Child, how he was laid in the manger and how he was placed on hay between the ox and the donkey".

On that occasion, which took place in 1223, there was no lack of a manger, hay or animals. In that atmosphere, Francis overflowed with sighs and "overcome with pity, he melted with ineffable joy". He also preached, as a deacon, to the people and some of those present enjoyed an ineffable vision. At the end of the solemn vigil, all returned home filled with joy. Although it was not the first celebration of this subject, it is considered an important religious event, a unique feast.

It goes without saying that with the Franciscan charism, both in the male and female branches of the Order, everything related to the Nativity Scene and Christmas has always had a great significance. Franciscans and Poor Clares spread Christmas customs throughout Christendom so that Jesus would awaken during Christmas in the hearts of devout souls. On some occasions St. Francis and St. Clare will be represented next to the manger and the Child God. The contemplation of Christ's humanity, as a naked child, was a very popular topic during the Baroque centuries.

Franciscans of Tudela

The popular Christmas Eve in Tudela had a special quotation in the Franciscan convent, with a procession of the Baby Jesus to be placed before the Midnight Mass in the presbytery, inside a large cave, where the images of the Virgin and St. Joseph were already arranged. group From some legal proceedings we know that, in 1795, a group of men who had gone overboard with the wine, organized certain disturbances inside the conventual church, with whistles of those used by the street porters, a vihuela and a bugle, at the same time that they tried to process with some images and released some streamer rockets on the floor.

A witness, named José Puyo, in addition to reporting the excesses, tells us how he helped the sacristan to prepare, among other objects, the cave for the adoration of the Child God, as well as the axes for its illumination. He also indicates that the drunks who entered the temple tried to take the images of the Virgin and St. Joseph that were in the cave. Another of those called to testify, Joaquín Añón, gives more details of the ceremonial of that night, in which the Franciscan friars made a procession around the temple carrying the Child Jesus to place him in the mentioned cave or portal that was arranged and prepared next to the main altar, sheltering Saint Joseph and the Virgin.

An exiled French priest, Joseph Branet, describes in 1797 the function that took place in the same church of the Franciscans, on Epiphany, as follows: "Three large brothers, singularly dressed, and one of them with his face smeared in black, entered the church at the beginning of the mass. They were preceded by a lantern, or lantern of very bright crystals, hanging in the air, which imitated the star, and they followed it. They carried in their hands the appropriate gifts that they were going to offer to the newborn child. They danced part of the mass, as well as many other children, to the sound of the organ, in which a gallegada or contradanza was played. They ended by taking communion at this mass. Thus ended this ceremony where there were many spectators".

Tafalla and Olite

In the convent of the Franciscans of Tafalla, Ángel Morrás in his Memorias-Escenas de la vida tafallesa, refers how at the beginning of the XIX century and during the offertory of the Misa del Gallo, they went out to dance a rancher, surnamed Flamarique, and a woman, bearded and easy-going, very popular in the city, nicknamed "la Chula". A mountain friar, Father Gorriti, came out in the middle of the convent church, playing the chistu and the tamboril, and invited the dancers with this couplet, more typical of a zambra than of a mass: "Salga la Chula / con Flamarique; / salga la Chula, / salga a bailar" (Let the Chula come out / with Flamarique; / let the Chula come out, / come out to dance).

Regarding Olite, in the book Postrimerías del Castillo de Olite published by the Franciscan P. Celso Gónzalez, in 1915, we read in reference letter to the functions of Christmas Eve: "The Father was the obligatory preste in the great solemnities and it was necessary to see him singularly in the classic party that then was celebrated in San Francisco, the night of Christmas, with attendance of the city council and great contest of the town. The town councilors were dressed in the classic golilla, that honorable garment that gave so much visibility to the Spanish Justices and that nowadays is poorly supplied with the tailcoat and the hat, accompanying the town council, his macero and the minstrels wearing pointed tricorns. Morrás, descended from the dome, hanging from a long rope, a kind of artificial artificially made artichoke, which, thanks to an ingenious mechanism, when it reached the ground, opened in two halves, revealing in its center the Divine Infant reclining in a beautiful cradle. The shepherds of the village, previously invited, would then begin an original dance around the child Jesus, symbol of the joy experienced by their brothers in Bethlehem when they witnessed the mystery that saved mankind, and the feast ended with everyone adoring the child, beginning with the shepherds who would leave from there, once Easter had begun and abstinence had ceased, to eat the soup made of bread and marinated in capon tallow".

Pamplona and Sangüesa

Among the nativity scenes that attracted attention in the capital of Navarre at the end of the 19th century was that of the Capuchins of San Pedro for its setting and figures. Those religious, sons of the youngest branch of the Friars Minor, remained faithful to a secular Franciscan tradition before the nativity scene entered definitively in all homes with small figures, already at the end of the 19th and 20th centuries. In a article of Fray Sebastián de Goñi in the magazine Pregón of 1945, we read in this regard "The Capuchin Nativity Scene! Who is there in Pamplona who does not know it? But I have said little: I do not think I am exaggerating if I affirm that the whole Cuenca has paraded, with the rotation of time, to contemplate it and then overflow in lighted ponderings. Until a few years ago there was no other person in Pamplona who dared to be in his company, much less to make him skill". In 1951 a chronicle reads: "For many years the Nativity Scene of Capuchinos constituted an important center of attraction for the whole city in the days of Christmas; the skill of our students, in an eagerness to surpass itself from year to year, has made it worthy of this reputation; several times it has been awarded in the contests organized in the city, although this same skill has made its old reputation descend somewhat".

If in Pamplona the Capuchins took great care in the preparation of the Nativity Scene as a catechetical and artistic means, in Sangüesa, Father José de Legarda composed the text of the "Auto de los Reyes Magos" that began to be performed in 1900, with the streets of the city as the stage, in which the arrival of the Kings to Bethlehem is staged to adore the Child and offer him their gifts.

Poor Clares and Conceptionists

The daughters of St. Clare and other branches of the Franciscan family such as the Capuchins and Conceptionists celebrated the entire Christmas cycle, from the Virgin of the O to Candlemas, with special ceremonies linked, on many occasions, to the setting up of the Nativity Scene. In the tradition of all those convents, the miraculous event that narrated how St. Clare herself, who was bedridden and seriously ill, was miraculously transported, on Christmas night, to the church of San Francisco to enjoy the solemn celebration, much more solemn than that of her convent, always appeared as reference letter .

In some Poor Clare monasteries, such as that of Santa Engracia de Pamplona, in Olite since the 19th century, they distributed by lottery at the beginning of their traditional Advent, on All Saints' Day, a ballot with a piece of the garment of the Child Jesus associated with a reflection in a ceremony called the Ropita del Niño Jesús (Little Clothes of the Child Jesus).

In all the Poor Clare convents, until very recent times, the ceremony of "saint and soul" was celebrated by prescription of their own ritual, following the supper on January 1, feast of the Circumcision of the Lord. In it there were as many cards as there were nuns in the convent, plus one for the community. In each one of them the name of a saint, a mystery of the life of Christ or the Virgin, a virtue and the name of a deceased religious or a benefactor were written down. In other ballots or ballots the names of the nuns were written down, plus another one in the name of the Venerable Community. In separate containers they were placed on a table with a Crucifix and two candlesticks and, after the chant of the Veni Creador, they proceeded to the election and distribution of the ballots, taking them out one by one, remaining in the possession of each nun to read it with assiduity and spiritual advantage.

From the celebration of Christmas Eve in the Poor Clares of Santa Engracia of Pamplona we have received news of certain excesses. Thus, in 1681, there was a great uproar in the conventual church, and the doors were even broken down, with "a channel or manger of sheep", with great shouting and throwing of stones, chestnuts and nuts.

The Virgin of the O

In the monastery of the Poor Clares of the capital of La Ribera, the Christmas functions began with the celebration of the "O" after Vespers. Before the 24th, the singing of the "O" was celebrated with great expectation in cathedrals and, in a very special way in the cloistered convents. As it is known, they were sung from December 18, feast of the Expectation of the birth of the Virgin and they receive that name because the antiphons of the breviary all begin with the letter "O". In the cloister of Tudela, this ceremony took on a special significance when a nun took a kind of banner with the "O" very decorated with the Child Jesus and performed a kind of dance with it, attracting the attention of those who attended the function that has been recorded in various written sources.

Currently the conference are no longer celebrated with the apparatus of yesteryear. They began on December 16 and end on December 24, with the reading of some considerations about the conference that Joseph and Mary made from Nazareth to Bethlehem. This custom, which is still very popular in countries such as Mexico and Guatemala, was also practiced in the parishes and houses of Navarre until the 19th century. We know of several editions for the internship of the conference or Posaditas, and we know of the staging with images of St. Joseph and the Virgin in search of lodging.

The Conceptionists of Estella have been preparing for some years a unique nativity scene with different images of the Child Jesus -so abundant in the female cloisters-, dressed as shepherds and shepherdesses, all in tune with a unique Franciscan tradition that is expressed in different ways but always with a very popular secular charism of closeness and humility.

At the Capuchinas of Tudela

In the convent of Capuchinas de Tudela on Christmas night, at about eleven o'clock a singular procession is organized. The Mother Abbess takes the Virgin seated on the borriquilla, the Vicar does the same with St. Joseph and the oldest ones take the archangels and in the order they were on the altar - St. Gabriel, Virgin, St. Joseph and St. Michael - they go to the lower choir to the sound of Christmas carols. There they are placed on a table prepared for that purpose. After the recitation of Matins and the singing of the Kalenda, in the middle of Midnight Mass, before the preface, the Abbess leave takes the Virgin off the donkey and puts her on her knees, placing the Child Jesus in her arms. All this ritual has to be put in relation with texts of Sister María Jesús de Ágreda, concretely with the chapter IX of the II Part of the Mystical City of God, where she makes allusion to the five days that Joseph and Mary invested in the workshop from Nazareth to Bethlehem, as well as to the ten thousand angels who accompanied them and in a special way to "Prince St. Michael, who always attended at the right side of his Queen, without leaving her at any point in this journey, and repeatedly served her, taking her by the arm when she was a little tired. And when it was the Lord's will, he defended her from the inclement storms and performed many other offices for the sake of the Divine Lady and the blessed fruit of her womb, Jesus".

On Three Kings' Day in the Capuchin community of the capital of La Ribera, after the singing of Vespers and dinner, a special procession is organized, called the "Despedida del Niño" (Farewell to the Child), through the lower cloister.

The aforementioned figures are again collected from the choir by the respective nuns mentioned above. The rest of the community also takes figures from other nativity scenes in the monastery and with pastoral instruments and bells, of different sizes and periods, they sing the carol whose refrain reads: "En esta noche tan tender / es preciso lamentar / la despedida del Niño / que está ya para marcharse" (On this tender night / it is necessary to lament / la despedida del Niño / que está ya para marchar).