Make a Peruvian Retablo
Intricately handcrafted inside ornaments to hang on the Christmas tree, or in boxes for the mantle, Peruvian retablos are a reminder of the true meaning of Christmas. At the same time, it allows the artisans who make them, to earn fair wages and a sustainable income.*
Peruvian retablos are a form of art typical of the Andes. They originated with the altar boxes brought by the Spaniards, but over time they developed into a folk art expression. Retablos usually depict religious scenes, like the nativity, but may depict other important cultural, political and social events. Retablos are also a form of storytelling since they represent and preserve oral traditions. Typical retablos are made of cedar wood boxes, painted with bright colors. The figures are made out of special clay, a mix of potato flour and gesso, delicately crafted and fixed inside the box.
For this craft, borrowed from Mommy Maestra is made mostly of recycled materials. Materials
Box with flaps
Acrylic paint in different colors
Cereal box cardboard
Scrap fabric, ribbon, tissue paper, anything you want to use to decorate
We start by finding ‘the right box.’ Determine what size box you want to use; make sure it has no dents, and that its flaps are in good condition. If your box has any packing tape you may remove it and replace it with masking tape. That way you’ll be able to paint over it. Now gather the whole family and give each person a task. Make this a family project!
I chose a small box, fixed it with masking tape, and painted it white. Then, I painted the inside with dark blue. I gave it a couple of coats for optimal coverage. Once it was dry, I painted red lines in all corners as shown in the picture. My brush was a flat point size 8. After it was all dry, I went back with a little bit of white to retouch and fix the parts I had messed up. There were lots! I let the paint dry while I chose my color palette: hot pink, dark purple, green, and yellow. I chose these colors because I wanted it to be traditional. Usually, retablos are decorated with flower motifs, arabesques, and geometrical figures. First, I made flowers on the inside flaps just by pressing my rounded brush around, like making petals. You can use a stencil or anything else that can help you. I suggest you practice your design on a piece of paper before painting on the box. A good thing to remember is that these decorations are simple and symmetrical.
I made my designs in all the panels of the box.Once this was dry, I painted the outside flaps. Usually, retablos have half of a flower on each flap so it looks like one flower when the flaps are closed. I did my best to make it that way, even though my flaps will not close together since the box is not a square.
Also, if you notice, I cut the corners of the top flap to shape it like a trapezoid. You can make it into any shape you want.
While our house dried, I started crafting the little people. I used cardboard from a cereal box. The most important step is to calculate their size. If you make them too big, they won’t fit in the box. I cut faces and painted them with sharpies. Then I put everything together with hot glue. I had a lot of fun deciding what they were going to wear. I used burlap because of its rustic texture. For the head, I used a crumpled ball of tissue paper and fixed it in place with a dab of glue. If you were going to make a bigger house, you could use toilet paper rolls and use Styrofoam balls for their heads and faces. You can use anything you have handy to decorate these cute little figures.
For baby Jesus, I used a small rectangle of burlap, cramped tissue paper and a cardboard circle for his face. I bundled everything with the help of hot glue. Isn’t he cute? We even made a cow… well, I know, it could be a Dalmatian, too.
This Peruvian-inspired nativity is a great reminder of the reason why we celebrate Christmas.
*Ten Thousand Villages works closely with artisans in towns including Ayacucho, Cuzco, and impoverished sections of Lima in order to help indigenous artisans preserve this cultural tradition. You can help support Peruvian artisans here.