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.
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.
Some of the scenes incorporated traditional methods and local materials with a modern twist, creating some interesting results.
Not all the pieces in the exhibition originated from the Alentejo region.
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