|Belen 2016 near Camp Sevillano Aquino, San Miguel, Tarlac.|
For the past couple of years, we've been wanting to make a trip to (a) San Fernando, Pampanga for a look at their renowned giant lanterns from the different barangays during their 'ligligan ng mga parol' competition, and (b) Tarlac province to check what's this belenismo event all about: an annual inter-town competition as to who makes the best nativity scene.
On 21 December, we left traffic-bedraggled Metro Manila in mid-afternoon hoping to get to Tarlac just as soon as the belens get lit up. We thought we'd be able to finish San Miguel, Tarlac and Tarlac City early enough to get to watch the giant parols at the back of Robinson's in San Fernando, Pampanga.
We were late for the giant lantern show, and there's not much chance we'd be able to see the 'ligligan this year'.
After the ride through NLEX-SCTEX and the dark stretch of McArthur Highway through the Luisita estate, we got rewarded with an awesome sight: a giant peacock made out of colorful fans and winnowing baskets and 'feathers' of bamboo strips with the bird's bosom cradling the manger scene, and the star fixed on its head.
|The nativity scene with the Magi. There were sheep but no shepherds.|
This peacock belen won the top prize in this year's Belenismo of Tarlac, a competition among the towns as to who would create the best nativity scene. We read in the papers that President Digong DU30 himself was the guest during the awarding ceremony. The poster announcing the event said it's 'free admission.'
|The bird's head served as the star.|
We saw two other belens in Tarlac City that used indigenous materials.
That of SM Tarlac City used dangling bamboo poles all around the traditional images of the nativity; the heads of Mary and Joseph though were moving.
|Belen of SM Tarlac City.|
The non-traditional belen across the street fronting the Cathedral made use of bamboo mats in configuring the images of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and the Three Kings.
|Belen in the plaza across the cathedral, Tarlac City|
All these reminded us that once when we were a math teacher in a Catholic high school in the old hometown, we were tasked to construct the belen in the church.
Together with one of my students who would become an architect, we made use of all the cut branches of the mango tree that got torn up during the storm some months before. We assembled them to make the platform for the nativity scene complete with kings and shepherds around the holy family, and hooked the angel above them with a long wire to the ceiling.
Our American Columban parish priest did not object when we constructed the belen a few meters from the entrance, and it was the first and last (we think) that the church belen was not located at its customary place at the right or left side of the altar. The traditionalists did not directly chide us, but we got plenty of 'why there?' inquiries. Our safe retort was, 'so that you'd see it in full right away, and not hidden by heads in front of you during the mass.'
The footnote to the "belen" story in the letter of Fr. Pedro Rosell on 17 April 1885, found in Blair and Robertson (vol, 43), indicates that the word is derived from "beleno", which means "birth, in the sense of representing that of our Lord Jesus Christ (Echegaray's Diccionario etimologico), Hence, it was the representation of a manger."
Fr, Rosell wrote about a simple belen made inside the church. Then as now, there was not much religious ceremony that attended it: it merely illustrated the Christmas story.
His letter reflects how the people of that time celebrated Christmas and the joy expressed through the pealing of the bells and the singing of Christmas carols. Today, one can hardly hear church bells, and yes, carols (and their derivatives) are still sung, but not so many people practice the adoration of the Holy Child.
Here's Fr. Rosell telling about one Christmas day in his parish to his Father Superior:
"And now you shall see, Father Superior, the religious ceremonies with which we managed to honor the birth of our Blessing, Jesus. As a preparation for the feast [of Christmas] the [feast of the] expectation of the delivery of our Lady was celebrated one week beforehand, and a daily mass of the Queen [i.e., of the Virgin] which a moderate number of persons attended. On the last day or the vigil of the feast, a pleasing, although simple Belen was made at one side of the presbytery in which were placed the images of the Child, Mary, and Joseph. Christmas eve came, and at eleven o'clock the bells were rung loudly, and from half past eleven until twelve, a continual ringing of bells two at a time announced to the people that the mass called Gallo was to be celebrated in memory of that holy hour in which the eternal Son of God the Father, made man in the most pure entrails of the Virgin Mary willed to be born on that poor and abandoned manger threshold [portal de Belen]. Hence when twelve o'clock had struck, the missa-cantata was said, which was followed by the adoration of the holy Child. That was made enjoyable by the singing of some fine Christmas carols. The twenty-fifth dawned bright and joyful. At eight o'clock in the morning solemn mass was celebrated, which was chanted according to custom by the choir of singers of the church, with the accompaniment of two flutes and a tambourine. About one hundred persons took communion at it. There was a sermon, and at the end of the mass, there was another adoration of the Child Jesus. At the end of the function, the authorities and chiefs of the village came to visit us as they are wont to do during all the great feasts of the year. After that the musicians and singers congratulated us for the good Christmas from the hall of the convent, with toccatas according to the custom of this country, and Christmas carols. After them followed a crowd of people of all classes. What arrested my attention most was the liberty with which they went up and down stairs, hither and thither, and addressed the fathers and begged for what they needed. I will say it: the convent appeared nothing more nor less than a Casa-Pairal. Since the ceremonies of the morning were so long, nothing was done in the afternoon except to have the adoration of the holy Child, a thing which those excellent and simple people enjoy greatly and never tire of doing. With that the feast of the nativity of our Lord ended."
Reference: Blair, E.H. and Robertson, J.A. (1903-09). Letter from Father Pedro Rosell. Caraga, April 17, 1885. [From ut supra.] The Philippine Islands, 1493-1803. 1:43(225-228). Cleveland, Ohio: The A. H.Clark Company.