Salvadoran Nacimientos vs. American Nativities

Our nativity scene

Nacimientos, or nativities, are something that both Carlos and I grew up with. In my case, the nativity was a simple wooden manger scene with plastic figures: Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus in a bed of straw, an angel, the three wisemen, a cow, a donkey, a couple sheep and their shepherd. My mother always placed the nativity beneath the Christmas tree and my sisters and I were allowed to play with it just like we played with our Barbies or any other toys where we’d act out elaborate storylines while laying on the carpet, completely lost in our own imaginations.

In Carlos’s case, the nacimiento of his childhood took up a large area of their house during the Christmas season. The clay figures included all the same characters we had, plus many more. Salvadoran nacimientos often look more like a bustling city than an intimate scene. No figure is considered inappropriate, from a woman at a pupusería, national soccer players, politicians, drunks, Chavo del 8, and short-skirted cheerleaders with batons known as “cachiporras” to the devil himself.

Carlos’s childhood nativity sounds like a dream come true! I can only imagine how many hours my sisters and I would have played with such a scene – except that Carlos tells me that playing with it was absolutely not allowed.

Now that we’re grown and married with our own household, we put up our own nativity scene. The first year we bought it and put it up, we had an argument about baby Jesus. Carlos couldn’t understand why I put baby Jesus into the manger and I couldn’t understand why he kept taking it out and hiding it. Carlos says that in El Salvador, you don’t put El Niño Jesús in the manger until he’s born. What I was doing – displaying the complete scene with the baby weeks before Christmas – made absolutely no sense to him – (Although cheerleaders attending the birth of Christ apparently makes sense, but I digress.)

For a few years, although I thought it was weird, I let him hide baby Jesus. I also insisted that by his logic, the three kings should be hidden until January, but he ignored me. At this point I must have gotten used to his way of doing things because when I set up the nativity, I handed Jesus over to him without a word and watched him stick him behind a picture frame on a shelf.

This year I’ve tried to make our Nativity a little more Salvadoran. I added a house plant as a palm tree and some rocks from la Libertad, but I definitely want to buy some characters in the years to come. I like the idea of expanding the nativity to look like a town in San Salvador… as long as Carlos let’s me play with it.

What kind of nativity do you have? Do you allow your children to play with the nativity? Why or why not?

Other links to check out:

Los tradicionales nacimientos de barro – Youtube video from


  1. We had a medium size nacimiento on our home growing up. Our set was made out of wood, almost like kids’s toys wood figures (My mom always liked artsy stuff). But the usual naciemientos style was like yours. And we hid the niño Jesus too!! What we did with the 3 kings was put them far from the main house and as time passed by we moved them closer until January 6th. At my grandma’s there was one whole room for the naciemiento! And there were neighbor’s houses that offered tours of theirs!! I only have a little one at home right now but I was thinking I do want to make a big one next year. I love it because it is there making a big presence for the kids to remember what Christmas is all about!

    • Dariela – I love the idea of moving the kings closer each day! Cute!

      I saw some videos on Youtube of some people’s nacimientos – WOW. Some people go all out with a background, and mountains, lights, etc. Some have an entire room dedicated to the nacimiento like your grandmother.

      If I had grown up with one like that, there is no way I could resist playing with it.

      I’m not very religious but I agree that the nativity helps remind the kids what the holiday is supposed to be celebrating.

  2. rofl i actually have no nativity scene amiga but must invest in one!! My mother was so crazy with decorating i was traumitized n keep it simple like Carlos she had a whole damn town n we could not touch it.. but i like ur traditon much more i recall playing with my great grandmothers… great post amiga feliz navidad :)

    • LOL – I would have touched it whether I was allowed or not. How did you restrain yourself?

      Feliz Navidad, amiga! Besos!

    • Ay no – not the inflatables. I *hate* them. Our neighborhood has a few of various different things and I’ve never wanted to own a BB gun until now… LOL. Kidding… kind of… The Winnie the Pooh one and the Homer Simpson one are especially annoying.

  3. You were allowed to play with the nacimiento?? i’m jealous! We weren’t even allowed to get close to it! We also don’t put baby Jesus until the 24th, and in my family the youngest one is the one that has the honor to do it. It’s Julian’s turn this year! My tio really went all out with the nacimiento this year!! He even has running water to make it look like the river.. i’ll see if i can snap a picture so you can see it!

  4. hahahh…bustling city is so true…..i think Salvadoran nacimientos also include “la pupusera” and “la vieja chambrosa del pasaje”….LOL

  5. When I was a child {a Mexican shhild that is!} we also had a very elaborate nativity scene. So what Carlos grew up with is not far from what I grew up with. It usually took my Grandmother and Aunts days to prepare…the entire village with rivers and farmers and a dirt road leading to yes the empty straw covered crib in the manger waiting until Christmas eve when baby Jesus {Niño Dios) was born, dressed and placed in the straw covered crib. I am going to have to look for a picture now to show my kids when they get older. It’s something that as I grew older, my Grandmother passed away and we stopped going to Mexico for Christmas…was forgotten..or simply left behind. Now that I have kids I want to pick these traditions back up. My kids are only 2yrs old and 9 months but in the next few years as they began to understand and learn where we came from and what we stand for, it’s these simple traditions and pieces of our culture that I want to instill in them..and no kids were not in any way shape or form allowed to play with the nativity set, my Grandmother would throw a chancla at us! Ha. Ahii. Those were the days! :D

  6. Hmm El Nativity de Carlos sounds like more fun lol Ours was just a basic one like yours was. Since I got married I only put one up once. I guess cause my mom didn’t make a big deal about it she did it more for my dad, tampoco celebramos el dia de los reyes. If I did have one I wouldn’t hide baby jesus lol just seems weird! Where do you hide him? I would feel guilty lol I’m sure I would not let my kids play with it…I don’t let them near the tree LOL

  7. I must get a nativity scene! Although my son knows the “true” meaning of Christmas, I feel the constant reminder of why we celebrate Christmas and seeing the nativity scene would be awesome. This is a definite buy for next year and hopefully we will continue to add more and more to it. Great post!

  8. Te vas a morir cuando te cuente!!! En casa de mis abuelitos “se quitaba la sala” porque el nacimiento tomaba el 80% de ella! Haciamos el nacimiento en niveles. En el nivel mas alto los angeles, en el siguiente maria, Jose, el niño y los animales; tercer nivel los reyes y unos pastorcitos y en el ground floor MILES de muñecos. la que jamas falta es la ciguanaba, el cipitio, los soldados (minimo unos 20), pupuseras, verdedoras de todo tipo (gallinas, verduras, carne,) zapateros, payasos, cachiporras ah!!!! y se ponia un espejo y sobre él poniamos patos y aves acuaticas. Con mi abuelita haciamos las alfombras ya sea de aserrin (se cortaban pliegos de papel y le poniamos mucha goma y sobre eso el aserrín para simular tierra, grama etc). ADEMAS …. haciamos alfombras de chan (cortabamos un saco de cafe y se le colocaba semilla de chan lo rieggas y a los pocos dias germina la semilla y sale una platita como la que sale en Chia pet, eso se ponia de grama). Los nacimientos de mi abuela eran famosos tanto asi que ella hacia una especie de fiesta para que la gente lo llegara a ver.
    En cuanto a lo del niño Dios, igual que Carlos lo colocabamos a las 12 de la noche del 24. Era muy lindo: mi abuelita lo tomaba primero y luego se lo pasaba a los niños hasta que regresaba a sus manos y ella lo ponia en el pesebre. Los reyes los poniamos ya que ellos habian emprendido el viaje semanas antes y estaban cerca del nacimento del niño.
    THE END!

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