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The Monumental Nativity Scene we know today is the result of the progressive evolution of how Christmas is celebrated in San Lorenzo de El Escorial.
The tradition dates back to the days when families would go through the ritual of dusting off their nativity scene figures, and begin to assemble the different elements that make up the scene (moss from La Herrería, slag from the boilers at the Hotel Felipe II, sawdust from the Garrido carpentry workshop, pine branches from the Abantos district…).
Those nativity scenes featuring modest clay figures, wire-legged lambs, houses of cork, watermills, haystacks, etc., were gradually expanded year after year, thanks to the specialist supplies sold by a number of shops in the town. Some of the scenes were entered in a competition which proved hugely popular, as were those set up at the Monastery and parish church.
Alfonso Martín Sánchez, the author of a brief history of the emergence and evolution of Christmas festivities in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, indicates that the El Chupetín peña, or neighbourhood association, of which he was a member, organised the first Cavalcade of the Three Kings in 1958.
Intended initially for the children belonging to the peña, it ultimately became a celebration open to everyone who wished to take part, thanks to the intervention of the assistant parish priest of San Lorenzo, who asked them to organise the event for the whole town. In parallel, a neighbourhood group who may have gone by the name of “Peña El Sotanillo” set up a traditional Nativity Scene in a corner of Plaza del Ayuntamiento. This served to give shape to Christmas celebrations which flooded out onto the local streets and squares.
Little by little, the Christmas festivities gained their own momentum. In subsequent years, themed Nativity Scenes were set up on Plaza de la Cruz. Each year a theme was chosen to be celebrated, with the Nativity Scene thus paying tribute to different national or local individuals or institutions. Notable editions were dedicated to: UNICEF, Rodríguez de la Fuente, the Red
Cross, National Heritage, TV Clowns, John Paul II, Aldeas SOS, Pilgrimage, Drums, The Royal Family, Antonio Cobos, Eurovision, TVE, The Virgin Mary, Children’s Cartoons, etc.
The years passed by, and the children who had initially watched the Three Kings parade past with their parents, grew up, established new peñas, and lent renewed momentum to the Christmas celebrations. One of them, “Zipi y Zape” began to collaborate with the peña “El Chupetín”, and ultimately took over responsibility.
The festivities were gradually embellished as the programme of activities became more diverse and changes were incorporated as the event evolved, such as the relocation of the Nativity Scene to Plaza del Ayuntamiento in 1987, and the extension of the Christmas season to cover a fortnight, unlike any of the other nearby towns.
Ten years later, in 1997 the Zipi-Zape Friends’ Association invited a series of local artists (Abascal, Pardito, José Luis Rodríguez, Alfredo del Moral, etc.), to coordinate a group willing to work on a Nativity Scene that would go a step further than the previous efforts. Those who answered the call included Mariano Pardito, a local artist who was ultimately given the task of designing and organising the first Monumental Nativity Scene of San Lorenzo de El Escorial.
The first year’s scene was very straightforward, but served to visualise the scope and dimensions that it would later acquire, in a town whose harsh winter climate demanded an attraction that would bring in a large number of visitors, so as to reduce the seasonality of its tourism.
It was created with life-size figures, and ultimately developed into what is now seen as a major tourist attraction, visited each year by a great many people not only from the surrounding area, but also from other towns in the region, and even other regions of Spain.
In 2008 Carlos Contreras, a regular contributor to the Nativity Scene, took charge of coordinating efforts, maintaining the philosophy of endlessly bringing in continuous innovations, with a novel design each year. The importance of the Monumental Nativity Scene is amply demonstrated by the interest shown by the businesses based in the centre of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, who have partly funded the venture since 2009.
The pandemic had a negative impact on the celebration. In the year 2020, restrictions prevented the traditional event from being held. However, two initiatives were launched so as to maintain the unbroken sequence of tradition. First of all, the Nativity Scene was reduced to the minimum, with a depiction simply of the birth itself on Plaza del Ayuntamiento, while numerous figures appeared in «lockdown» on the balconies of many town centre terraces. Meanwhile, an initiative was organised to cooperate with the local population in creating the video «The Monumental Nativity Scene in Images», with contributions by the residents of San Lorenzo de El Escorial.
The following year, 2021, marked the 25th anniversary of the Monumental Nativity Scene, and it proved possible to set up the display on a number of the town’s streets, supported by an open-air exhibition commemorating the different editions held since the earliest days. While it remained smaller than the pre-pandemic scale, thanks to safety measures adopted, the event once again proved a real success.
The declaration of the Monumental Nativity Scene as a Festival of Regional Tourist Interest will lend renewed momentum to an initiative which arose and is maintained thanks to the efforts of a great many people involved in the process, along with their close cooperation with the Local Authority of San Lorenzo de El Escorial.