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The Legend of the Lapinha
A Christmas Nativity Scene
Contributed by Sandy Sakai

A Lapinha is the name of the Nativity made in Madeira in honor of Baby Jesus. It is called a “Presepio” in other parts of Portugal.

By tradition, the Lapinha was begun several days before Christmas. A stair with three steps was covered with bright paper and decorated with silk/paper flowers. The stairs are placed next to the wall on a table or dresser, which is draped to the floor with an embroidered red material, or branches. Over this, a white cloth with lace is placed - constructing a type of altar table. Baby Jesus is placed on the top step - the figure is usually out of proportion with the rest of the scene. Across the back of the top step is an arch of red and white silk/paper flowers. A spray of flowers is attached to the bottom of the arch on each side.

On the wall, as a background, is a damask spread (bedspread) which is framed by wild flowers and colored lights. On the table, around the stairs are earthenware saucers with young plants of lentils, wheat, corn and rye. There are also little loaves of bread and an olive oil lamp, which is not allowed to go out from Christmas Eve until the Day of the Kings - January 6th.

This traditional construction has almost disappeared and has been replaced by paper mache construction representing rocks and mountains resembling aspects of the Island of Madeira. This can be large or small and is usually painted and partly covered by moss. Baby Jesus rests on the highest peak. The image is dressed in white satin with white, gold or silver embroidery (or lace) around the hem. Baby Jesus is covered with an arch of red and white flowers. Along the side is placed a painted, clay rooster. Scattered across the hills and valleys are shepherds, with their offerings of fruits, gourds, chickens and lambs. All sorts of regionally dressed folk figures are included, such as: a folkdance group, a band, bandstand, a parade of school children, a religious procession, a country fair with stalls, and even a scene of the traditional killing of the pig. There are also houses, chapels, and bridges scattered around. Also - milkmaids, donkey carts, etc.

At the base of the mountain is a cave where Baby Jesus is placed on a bed of straw and is surrounded by Mary, Joseph, a cow, a burro, and sheep. Generally, the Three Kings are placed at the entrance of the grotto, or on the mountain as if they were still traveling the road. On the ground, or around the base of the rocks, sand or sawdust is spread like a carpet. On top the little saucers with plant sprouts are placed, along with polished red apples, little breads, oranges, “anonos” (a fruit that looks like a hand grenade) and chestnuts in their opened husks. Among these things are shepherds (larger than the ones on the mountain to give idea of perspective), carts, camels, sheep - all illuminated by an olive oil lamp, which is never allowed to go out from Christmas Eve until the Three Kings Day.

Stopping by to see the “Lapinha” is quite a tradition during the Christmas holidays. One always drops some change in the saucer that has been placed by Baby Jesus. Groups may stop to sing traditional folks songs and are usually given a drink of orange liqueur with “bolo de mel” (honeycake).

[From the files of the Portuguese Genealogical Society of Hawaii]

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