Art and Culture

Dominican Traditions: La Vieja Belen

It’s sad to see so many of our country’s traditions being lost over time. One that I remember hearing a lot about as a child and that no longer hear this new generation mentioning is “La Vieja Belen”. La Vieja Belén is a legendary figure that only exists in the Dominican Republic. It is said she comes a week after the Three Kings (January 6, Epiphany), bringing a simple gift to only poor children.

Julia Álvarez dressed as La Vieja Belén reading her book to children in Santiago – Image from

The legend of La Vieja Belén still persists in the memory of many Dominicans, although the tradition of offering gifts after the Epiphany or Three Kings Day is being forgotten. The origin of this character is not clear but there are various theories. The Dominican writer Julia Álvarez has always been intrigued by the generous and kind old lady and decided to bring her back investigating further for her book “The best gift of all: The legend of La Vieja Belen”, published by Alfaguara of the Santillana Group she has also had book readings to educate children on her story. She points out that some Dominican scholars believe that La Vieja Belén had its origin among English immigrants who came to the country to work in the sugar industry, others say that La Vieja Belén is the Dominican equivalent to the Italian popular legend of La Befana, a witch who does good deeds for the poor.

La Vieja Belén from activity at Adrian Tropical a few years back.

La Vieja Belén brought hope to numerous children, who for some reason (mainly monetary) did not receive toys and other gifts on Three Kings Day, even though her gifts are simple because she has no money and she is too old to carry heavy toys. Dominican folklorist Xiomarita Pérez points out that the well-known character of the Dominican tradition is also the only resource for parents who do not have money, to transfer the delivery of gifts for a week later. Without a doubt, La Vieja Belén is part of our folklore, enriched with that peculiar touch that only Dominicans can give. She brings hope and joy to many children and even though most already know that their parents are who buy the toys, it important to maintain that innocence for as long as we can in this technology ridden world, and educate them on all our traditions in order to keep them alive for generations to come, they are part of our culture as a country. 

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