It’s night. The house where Mary and Joseph are sheltered is illuminated by a blazing bonfire. Next to them lies the baby Jesus. A lightning bolt explodes in a burst of light over the dark sky and a thunderclap breaks the silence. In the distance, over the mountains come rolling clouds, raindrops sprouting from them. The water falls on a river that crosses the manger forming several waterfalls. In the background, the wild sea and two boats sailing in the storm. Palm trees gently sway, as if caressed by a breeze. The shepherds move: one hammers on a stone, another works some clay. And in the middle of them, an angel. In a minute it’s daytime – the sun is out, the sky is now blue – and the angel is no longer there: it disappears.
“I see the angel that appears and disappears and gives me chills. This place is mysterious. Coming is an experience of faith. Every year I come with my family, it’s already part of the things we do at Christmas. We spend hours contemplating this wonder.”
— Estefanía León from Caracas
The almost magical scene takes place inside a mysterious cave, while in the background plays a soundtrack of Christmas carols. “I’ve been here half an hour here and I’m tempted to stay much longer. Visiting this place is a wonderful opportunity to be reminded of the greatness of God, and at the same time, His simplicity. Stopped here, I just traveled to my childhood, when I was born in my mother’s home. I’m about to leave the country and something in this place, I don’t know what, reminded me of the beauties of my country, of its people,” says Cristal, 29 years old.
The manger -which is not just any manger- is inside the San Agustín school, in the El Paraíso housing development, southwest of Caracas. At the end of 1999, in that Catholic school arose the idea of building a large entrance that opened its doors every December, as a gift to the community. And the person in charge of bringing it about would be Alexander Vieira.
The responsibility fell on him not only for being a priest and a chemist by profession, but also because since his childhood he has always been fascinated by the crafting of majestic nativity scenes. “It’s a gift that I have. At 14, for example, I put it together in my room. I cleared out everything and built a platform for a dais. I slept underneath. It took me a month doing it. My mother, quite annoyed, said I was crazy. But when I finished, she came in to see it and started crying, ” said Vieira.
For those abilities, they thought that he would be the ideal person to execute the work in the San Agustín school. Together with Nicanor Vivas, also a priest, and the architect Oscar Prieto, he devoted himself to the task. In one area of the school terrace, they built a room where the birth would be depicted. The figures that would be used were bought by Vieira in Barquisimeto, a city in the west of the country. To move them, he had to make five trips by car. “The images had to be big, and not shine. We took care with the proportions: the human figures could not be smaller than those of the animals.”
For four months, they worked in daily shifts of more than 12 hours. “We stopped to bathe, sleep a little and we continued.” As he had done in his room at age 14, they built a kind of platform so that the scene would be at the height of the visitors’ sight. “This would have depth, it would not look like an aerial plane.” Downstairs, they organized the tangle of cables and tubes, so that the effects would be produced above.
They took care with the lighting of the cave: it had to be dark so that the colours could be appreciated. The movement of the figures was achieved using motors from washing machines, microwaves and fans.” I didn’t have anything clear. I never make a mock-up. I start to put everything together and I see how it goes on the fly. I play Christmas music, and I let myself go,” explains the priest Vieira.
“I cried the first time I came, a few years ago. I got goosebumps. You have to stay a long time, appreciating every detail, every movement. The rain, the music, the angel, the boats that move. Such ingenuity. Although it has all these things, it does not overflow luxury, but absorption. One stops here and reflects on many things.”
— Carmen Álvarez from Caracas
On December 1, 2000, after a mass of carols – a Venezuelan tradition that consists of celebrating eucharist days at 5:00 in the morning during the nine days before Christmas – the manger was inaugurated. And since then, every year, after being retouched, it reopens its doors to the community.
Vieira, 44, builds at least one nativity scene each season. Of course, always of smaller proportions. This year he has just finished one in the church where he is now a parish priest. “Sometimes I do not want to do it, because the commitment is a lot, you have to have patience. It takes days, weeks, even months. But it usually happens that when I finish and see everything, I cry,” he adds and shows his hands still swollen from the strenuous work. ” The important thing is the message left behind: humility. May people reflect on what we represent there: that God, being God, had no place to be born and finally came into the world surrounded by animals and shepherds. It says a lot about the things that should matter. It is a gift to the community. “
Anyone who wants can attend to contemplate the work of the San Agustín school. It will be open until February 2, 2018. Visiting hours are from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. But if someone arrives outside those hours, there is no problem: you just have to tell the guards that you want to see the manger and they gladly turn it on and open the door. Of course, as it is a gift, it is completely free.