Évora … where Christmas is celebrated all year round

The day after midsummer’s day 2016, I found myself sweltering in forty-five degree heat in the Alentejo capital of Évora. Desperate to get my pale Celtic skin out of the baking sun, I stumbled into the shade of the Igreja de São Francisco (Church of Saint Francis). Although its famous chapel of bones gave me a figurative chill down my spine, it wasn’t until I continued my visit upstairs that I began to feel much, much cooler. This wasn’t due to effective air conditioning but by a delightful array of objects on display there that I certainly wasn’t expecting to encounter in the middle of June.

The objects were… Christmas nativity scenes. Nearly one-hundred-and-fifty beautifully crafted pieces, nearly all created locally from Alentejo cork and clay, were on display in the church’s upper galleries. They were part of a huge private collection of over two thousand pieces owned by local residents Major General Fernando Canha da Silva and his wife Fernanda. In recent years, the Canha da Silva family wanted to share their love for nativities with the public, and as it believed that Saint Francis of Assisi began the tradition of recreating the scene of the birth of Christ during Christmas back in the thirteenth century, the family felt there was nowhere more suitable to display their collection than in their local church dedicated to Saint Francis. So, since 2015 a small part of Portugal has been celebrating Christmas all year round with a permanent display of some of the Canha da Silva’s collection.

As soon as I walked into the exhibition the thought of Christmas instantly made me think of snow, hence my more comfortable cooler state. Yet, being a Londoner born and bred, it is surprising that snow was my first thought of Christmas; in all the decades I have lived in the English capital, I have only ever experienced snow on the big day twice, and on both occasions the fall created just a mere dusting on the family car. In fact, I have witnessed far more white Easters in London than white Christmases. Maybe the thought was due to all the Christmas cards I have received over the years depicting a fantasy festive white London that only ever existed in the mind of Charles Dickens.

One of a number of nativity displays in the Canha da Silva Collection made entirely out of local Alentejo cork

Other scenes carved from local cork and clay

A collection of ‘Maquinetas’ – traditional nativity scenes in glass casing

A very relaxed baby Jesus indeed

There has always been debate as to whether Jesus was born in December or in the Spring time around March. This very floral maquineta would suggest the latter

As does this one. In fact, most maquinetas are full of Spring-time flowers

The detail in these small glass cases is astonishing, as seen in this maquineta by Delfim Dias de Sá.
They are like Portugal’s equivalent to ships in bottles

No wonder there was no room at the inn, the place was full of clay pots

God, with some rather ugly looking cherubs

As most of the scenes on display were created in Portugal, the country’s most popular emblem – the Rooster of Barcelos – often appears with the obligatory nativity donkey and cow.

Other aspects of traditional Portuguese life like agriculture and local produce have also been incorporated into these scenes.

“While shepherds churn their pots by night…”
Churning butter around the baby Jesus.
Clay scene by Isabela Catarrilha. Witty comment by my fellow blogger Anne Guy

A very revealing scene under an Alentejo cork tree

The nativity inside a traditional Portuguese rural house

The Christmas nativity starring ’70s heart throb Peter “Jason King” Wyngarde

“We three kings of Orient are not”. They look more like upper class Edwardian British gents to me… and Joseph looks rather like a young, ginger version of British comedian Jack Whitehall.
Also wine, bread and eggs? Surely, wrong festival.

Another scene – although stunningly beautiful – that may have got its Christian festivals mixed up

Maybe the celebration of Portuguese culture has gone a little too far here with Mary and Joseph ready to perform some Fado

That is quite a halo the baby Jesus has there

Some of the scenes incorporated traditional methods and local materials with a modern twist, creating some interesting results.

“Jar-gle Bells, Jar-gel Bells”. Incorporating local clay and traditional needlework to create this snug nativity in a jar. What a pitcher!*
*witty comment supplied once again by my comedy writer Anne Guy

Another jar based nativity in the collection

And another!

This stable appears to have air conditioning

“We tiered kings of Orient are…”

Exquisite clay sculpting here. Even the angel is impressed

Ahhh… the baby Jesus content with his other gifts of a ball, pacifier and teddy bear

Not all the pieces in the exhibition originated from the Alentejo region.

“Oh little town of Amsterdam…” A Dutch nativity

A beautiful piece from Cantão, China… although the baby Jesus does appear to be picking his nose

The Hollywood showbiz nativity

… with a baby Jesus that looks like legendary actor Gene Wilder

Merry Christmas!


Évora … the magnificent church of tiles verses the macabre chapel of bones






Évora and the Portuguese Stonehenge






Naples and finding an Usain Bolt fairy for the top of the Christmas tree





Frolicking elves, seductive baubles and interesting depictions of the nativity in the Christmas markets of Cologne







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1 Response to Évora … where Christmas is celebrated all year round

  1. Anne Guy says:

    What a crazy collection of nativity scenes! It’s a pleasure to add the odd comment to the even odder pictures you post! Thanks for the mention…

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