“Away in a Manger” has always been one of my absolute favourite Christmas carols. It has an innocent simplicity which encapsulates the meaning of this special time of year and brings a tear to the eye when sung by little children. The manger, or crib, gently holding the baby Jesus, surrounded by his parents. shepherds, angels, wise men and sundry domestic animals, is familiar and beloved by many. Here ‘s the story of our Christmas Nativity scene from Segovia, which we’ve had for many years, since I brought back the colourful pottery figures home from the heart of Spain.
I visited Segovia on a day-trip in 2000 whilst staying with Annie, a good friend from college days, who had moved to Madrid in the same year I went to live in Athens. We caught the strictly punctual Ave high-speed train from Madrid city centre and were zoomed across 50 miles or so of Spanish plains to Segovia, passing by Franco’s sternly impressive Basilica in the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen).
Segovia, a World Heritage City, is in many respects the archetypal Spanish town. It harmoniously blends centuries of fascinating history, imposingly and very physically evident in the enormous Roman Aquaduct, Castillian Alcazar Castle and imposing 16th century Catholic Cathedral, with the Guadarrama mountains in the distance.
First we took the steep path up to the Alcazar Castle. Originally built as a Roman fortress and then a Moorish fort on account of its position overlooking the surrounding countryside, its spires and towers inspired Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle. The room I remember best is the Hall of Kings with its beautiful Islamic ceiling and golden frieze of over 50 intricate portraits of Spanish monarchs of Castile and Leone.
Having had a strong dose of Spanish history we wandered off round the ancient, narrow streets that take the visitor on a quirky journey of discovery past tiny old houses, shops, bars and restaurants enclosed within its original stout, protective walls. Lunch was the famous roast suckling pig at one of the popular restaurants in the shade of the Aquaduct. The pork is roasted until softly juicy and tender; our waiter demonstrated this by expertly cutting through the meat with the edge of a plate.
Just before we got the return train to Madrid, I dashed back to one of the little souvenir shops I’d seen as we’d wandered the crowded lanes. In the window was a beautifully carved wooden Nativity Scene with charming little figures representing the Holy Family and others from Christianity’s most well-known story. I hurried in and chose my favourites from the shelves stacked ten deep with people, animals and angels. On impulse, I included a chunky Don Quixote to represent the country I’d bought them from. I wanted to get Sancho Panza but had no money left, so he had to stay behind …
That Christmas my son’s dad made him a little wooden ‘stable’ and Alex, age three, stuck some bits of grass over it. (It had a wooden star on the roof but somewhere over the years it’s fallen off – maybe this year we’ll make another one.) Carefully we arranged Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus,the Angel and Shepherd, the exotic Three Wise Men on elephant, horse and camel, little Donkey (whose ear got broken in a fall some time in the past) and Don Quixote, ready to do battle with anyone daring to threaten this peaceful little scene.
But one thing kept niggling away. Each time we placed Don Quixote beside the stable, I felt guilty that I hadn’t bought his loyal companion to join him in Far Far Away Land …
Then, a few years ago, I was on holiday in the lovely old city of Jerez in Andalucia when I came across a shop selling these same figures. Scanning the shelves, I found Don Quixote, but no Sancho Panza. I asked the elderly lady behind the counter if she had him? “Ah, just a moment”, she said and disappeared into the depths of the shops. “Here you are – the last one …” Well, he didn’t look quite like the tiny chap I’d seen in Segovia, but I think you’ll agree, they look good together and Don Quixote is back tilting at windmill, so he must be happy …
Away in a manger
Away in a manger,
No crib for His bed,
The little Lord Jesus
Laid down His sweet head;
The stars in the bright sky
Looked down where He lay,
The little Lord Jesus
Asleep on the hay.