Each November for the past 10 years, the province of Tarlac ushers in what is called “the longest Christmas in the world” — Pinoy Christmas, that is, with its own brand of grand spectacle called Belenismo sa Tarlac. Belenismo, or the art of making a belen, is a province-wide community undertaking of Tarlaqueños that has earned the province the title “Belen-making capital of the Philippines.”
Traditions of old bayanihan or communal unity, Pinoy creativity, ingenuity and resourcefulness, and the Filipinos’ innate love for all things celebratory, is evident in the assemblage of masterfully crafted crèches both large and small, depicting the Nativity scene — the heart of Christmas.
For 10 years, the indefatigable mother-and-daughter tandem of Isabel Cojuangco Suntay and Dr. Isa Cojuangco Suntay, founders of the Tarlac Heritage Foundation, Inc., have been tirelessly bringing together individuals, barangays, municipalities, schools, organizations and business establishments in orchestrating Tarlac’s greatest attraction during this holiday season of merriment — transcending economic class, political and religious choices.
This year is extra special in that the Belenismo sa Tarlac is not only celebrating a decade of honoring the birth of the child Jesus through its famed crèches. This year, the Belenismo sa Tarlac pays tribute to our bothers and sisters in Marawi, and the heroes who fought for their freedom. Taking center stage in this tribute is the Belen of the Hall of Fame awardees — the Philippine Army 7th Infantry Division, Mechanized Infantry Division, and Philippine National Police Regional Office 3.
Entitled “Marawi sa Panahon ng Kapayapaan,” this belen stands proudly on the grounds of the Northern Luzon Command in Camp Aquino in Tarlac City. Handmade by soldiers and policemen (many of whom served and fought in Marawi), the belen is made of recycled materials and is set against a backdrop of the ruins of the five-month war in Mindanao. It was designed by one of the Belenismo’s longtime advocates, Ding Mercado.
At the final judging last Nov. 18, our valiant heroes headed by Philippine Army Lt. Gen. Rolando Joselito Bautista were there in full force to dedicate their obra maestra to their fallen comrades in the recent war in Mindanao. Sgt. Ronnie Halasan of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division also gave an emotional performance of his original composition Bangon Marawi. Halasan said he wrote the song during the first week of battle in Marawi, when he was assigned to bring supplies to government forces fighting terrorists inside the city. Asked for the overall message of his song, he said: “Kailangan talaga magtulungan. Magtulungan ang bawat isa upang bumangon ulit ang Marawi.”
And what has become a tradition for the past 10 years, Belenismo sa Tarlac 2017 officially marked this year’s start of Christmas for the judges composed of Ding Mercado, Boysie Villavicencio, Johnny Co, Reina Tan, Gigi Sanares, Carlo Rojas, Mike Mina, my sisters Michelle Dayrit-Soliven and Yvonne Dayrit-Romualdez, myself, and members of various media networks, as we visited the 21 belens that made the cut to the finals.
Holland and beyond
The entry of Capas stood out as a winner with imposing replicas of the windmills of Holland using recycled scrap G.I. pipes and iron sourced locally from the junk shops of Capas. Creatively and delicately infused in this masterpiece is — believe it or not —carabao manure. Collected from nearby Crow Valley Gunnery Range in Barangay Sta. Juliana along the trek to Mt. Pinatubo, where the dried carabao manure was collected and carefully transformed into glittering colorful floral-like works of art that decorate the belen, leaving the judges in awe of the humility that went into the creation of this entry.
“Born to Save” is a grand and theatrical interpretation of the crèche by the municipality of Moncada. Steampunk-inspired, it incorporates technology and aesthetics drawn from 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. It features vintage fashion elements using native and modern materials with a millennial twist provided by the brightly lit giant marquee reading “Born to Save.”
Fish be with you
This playful but meaningful creation symbolizes the source of livelihood of Concepcion, Tarlac — fish culture. Their entry depicts the Nativity scene where the Holy Family is enveloped in a giant fish that is made out of indigenous materials such as bamboo, bulo, woven straw mats, abaniko, bilao, burlap sack, and abaca, festooned with festive lighting making it look like it’s shimmering in the rays of the golden sun. The giant fish belen is surrounded with depictions of Filipino traditions and representations of the other livelihood sources of Concepcion.
In San Manuel municipality, the country’s Outstanding Yellow Corn producer and a rising agricultural town in the province, the winning belen is made out of recycled styrofoam packs, plastic bottles and indigenous materials such as bamboo meticulously assembled into a dramatic and magnificent half circle backdrop of yellow corncobs.
In San Clemente, staging a belen with the theme “Environmental Protection and Preservation” has become a tradition. This year’s entry speaks about protecting our oceans and seas from climate change, pollution and decades of overfishing threats — thereby presenting a colorful, life-sized “under the sea” backdrop for the Nativity scene made out of indigenous materials, recycled plastic materials and other recyclable resources from the previous belen entries.
I’m a fan!
In preparation for the coming 500th anniversary, in 2021, of the arrival of Christianity in the country, Saint Francis of Assisi Parish belen in San Manuel pays homage to a tradition that has been at the heart of Filipino Christmas for centuries — the Simbang Gabi, as represented in the white nine-panel giant fan backdrop of the Nativity scene. It is also an acknowledgement of our gratitude to Spain for the faith that we now have.
The tribute to Marawi is also echoed in the winning belen of McDonald’s Capas. It features stylized and colorful Moro vintas, umbrellas, brass gongs, and the Holy Family in traditional Muslim-inspired clothing, all handmade from indigenous materials by the crew.
At the St. Joseph Parish Church in Barangay O’Donnel, Capas, Tarlac, its parishioners headed by Fr. Noel Paguinto adopted the “Taon ng Parokya” or Year of the Parish (declared by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines) as the theme of their winning belen. The crèche, mounted in a lampshape frame, sits on a sturdy star-shape structure made out of bricks.
In the Community Category of the Belenismo sa Tarlac, Sto. Cristo Parish utilized a caromata, a transportation mode from the old Philippines, for their belen that bagged the top prize in that category. The caromata then was used to ferry not only people but goods as well. This Christmas, the decorated caromata is envisioned to ferry God-made-man Jesus to the hearts of people so that in his humanity we will experience his divinity. The backdrop of the caromata is inspired by the colorful Masskara Festival of Bacolod, because it seems Jesus in becoming man masked himself with our humanity.
Sharing the top spot with Sto. Cristo Parish is a simple creation of the SVDF Choir of Barangay Balingcanaway, Tarlac City. Called “Belen sa Bulaklak,” it features the Nativity scene with the Holy Family on a colorful floral-shaped structure — actually the shape of the map of Tarlac province upon closer inspection, made out of recycled and recyclable materials.
Another notable winner in the Community Category that caught the judges’ eyes is this year’s refreshing entry by BHF Ligtasan — a simple Nativity scene on a meticulously landscaped deck with fresh flora. Faux giant taro leaves were infused in the setting to highlight the Baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. A modern twist and treatment was given to the gifts of the Three Kings — appliances placed around the scene, connecting it to the business of BHF.
Belenismo sa Tarlac, indeed, is season of giving and sharing, of making others happy. It is a respite from the drudgery of life — steering the weary towards peace and goodwill. Merry Christmas!
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Belenismo sa Tarlac runs until January 2018. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.