Tarlac’s belens put pizzazz to Pinoys’ Yuletide culture



TARLAC PROVINCE–Be greeted by dancing lights and by unique, imaginatively-designed belens from residents here in this Central Luzon province.

Welcome to the “Belen Capital of the Philippines.”

These colorful belens have engulfed the nine-year provincial celebration Belenismo sa Tarlac, or the art of making belen –the recreation of the nativity scene where Jesus Christ was born in a manger (Belen is also the Spanish word for Bethlehem, Christ’s brithplace).

It was a diocesan priest, Fr. Alex Bautista, who jump started the idea of annually holding this belen-making fest. This chair of the Diocese of Tarlac’s Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church tied up with the Tarlac Heritage Foundation (through the mother-and-daughter tandem of Isabel and Isa Cojuangco-Suntay) to pursue this event.

The idea “clicked  given the diocese’s tie-up with various stakeholders in the province. Bautista said of Belenismo sa Tarlac, the province’s complement to Pampanga province’s Christmas spectacle Lantern Festival.

Fr. Bautista thought of the Nativity scene as the most graphic symbolism of Christmas. Taking cue from there, Belenismo sa Tarlac thus sought to promote the religious artistic and social values of Tarlaqueños.

The visiting of belens this Christmas season can be compared to the Holy Week’s visita Iglesia, Bautista said.

The imagination, creativity, and bayanihan  of residents are showcased n the colorful belens. The belens also tell stories of people’s livelihood, values, and local culture and tradition.

The belen made by Camp Servillano Aquino of the Armed Forced of the Philippines that won a grand prize in this year's Belenismo sa Tarlac (photo by the Facebook page of Belenismo sa Tarlac)

The belen made by Camp Servillano Aquino of the Armed Forced of the Philippines that won a grand prize in this year’s Belenismo sa Tarlac (photo by the Facebook page of Belenismo sa Tarlac)

For example, the grand prize for this year in the non-municipal category is the belen of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Camp Servillano Aquino: the peacock-inspired belen masks colorfully the belen that’s encase inside a stone structure shaped like the body of the peacock.

The peacock’s head is the Star of Bethlehem.

The circular spots in the wings of the peacock act like the glitter of the night when the Baby Jesus was born. The 100-ft. tall belen stood bright; interestingly, the bright and ranbow-colored feathers are made out of indigenous and recycled materials.

Beside every belen is a prayer for blessing written in various dialects–Kapampangan, Ilokano Taglog–and in English.

Belen makers are free to be creative, to add whatever trimmings to the belen. “For as long as (the Holy Family) is there,” Fr. Bautista said.

Belenismo sa Tarlac had attracted tourists since it was first organized in 2007. Provincemates also take the occasion to visit the province’s capital (Tarlac City) and 17 municipalities to witness the nativity’s colorful renditions.

In the capital city, architecture student Christian Aaron Bondoc of Tarlac State University joined the making of the city belen. grand-prize-municipal-category-san-clementeTheirs is inspired by water lilies that continue to clog the city’s waterways. He says their belen, made out of handmade water lily mats, “symbolizes Tarlaqueños’ resiliency and unity”.

In Gerona town, the loud Roxas family (from San Manuel town) taking pictures in front of the belen at the municipal hall. That belen is made out of nipa and bamboo. The family had to savor their “Kodak” moment with the belen: “Do not frown at the camera! Your mom in Saudi Arabia has to see this,” one of the family members said.

“The belens bring joy to the people,” said 50-year-old Brenda, already a lola. “Families like us who want to unwind and stroll enjoy the spirit of Christmas.

From a hundred belen entries during its initial year,s only 45 entered this year’s Belenismo sa Tarlac. The fest had started last st-joseph-parish-capas-first-prize-churchNovember 4, as the winners were awarded last Dec. 11. The belens will be displayed until the Feast of the Three Kings.

As for Fr. Bautista, he wishes to see the economic impact of Belenismo sa Tarlac to the province and its people, like making a profit out of this event by making postcards, calendars and Christmas cards out of these picturesque belens.

Yet restaurants and hotels may not be prepared for this surge of tourists for the Belenismo, what with some areas of the province are secluded. So the municipality of Moncada took advantage of this shortfall and developed a plaza and opened a coffee shop in that plaza for tourists eavesdropping on the belens.

But as the belens try to illumine the lives of Tarlaqueños, Fr. Bautista takes pride that Tarlac left a mark in organizing a province-wide Christmas festival that put the Holy Family and the Baby Jesus at the colorful center.\


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Michelle D. Buencamino, a Tarlaqueña, is a graduating Journalism student of the University of Santo Tomas in Manila. She wrote this story for a feature writing class as a finals project last December.



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