|ALTAR OF THE NATIVITY. Mabalacat Church. Photo by Dr. R. Feliciano|
The whole Christendom celebrates the birth of Jesus with great joy and mirth, but nowhere is it celebrated with more pageantry than in the Philippines. Churches and communities prepare by staging the Nativity Scene before the altar, to be reflected on during the Simbang Gabi.
|BACOLOR BELEN, dressed by the late Thom Joven.Photo: T. Joven|
Some churches with side altars already containing belen images need only to clean and spruce up the figures. But those churches without lifesize images of San Jose, Sta. Maria and Nino Jesus, have to source them out from families, or make do with what they have--converting generic looking saints into the Holy Family.
|A RECONSTITUTED BELEN, Staged using separate individual santos.|
Photo by Rainier Sexon
But that is not the only challenge; there is the stable that needs to be built, plus the manger and all the "props" that would make the Nativity scene looks more authentic--animal figures, mostly sheep, goat, cattle.
|SMALL ESCAYOLA CHURCH BELEN. Photo by Lulot Ruiz.|
The Nativity scene takes inspiration from the accounts of the birth of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The narrative describes an angel announcing Jesus' birth to a group of shepherds who then went on to visit the humble site, where they found the Child Jesus in a manger. Matthew's story includes the presence of the 3 wise men who were guided by the star to the stable, hence, these characters are likewise included in the tableau.
|NATIVITY SCENE with the 3 Magis, Photo by Leo Cloma|
St. Francis of Assisi is credited with making the first Nativity Scene in 1223 to shift emphasis to Christ rather than gift-giving. In the Philippines, those in charge of staging the Belen take great efforts to make the tableau truly artistic. All sorts of materials go into the making of the stable--cut bamboo, old house parts, sawali, palm leaves, outlumber posts, old capiz windows.
|BARASOAIN CHURCH BELEN, Photo by Leo Cloma|
|ESCAYOLA BELEN. Photo by Leo Cloma|
Elaborate belens also include an animated Star of Bethlehem--a lit lantern that can swing into place through the use of pulleys--to the center of the tableau, which is the highlight of the Midnight Mass. After the Mass, the Baby Jesus is taken out of the manger for the traditional kissing of its feet or cheeks--the Pahalik.
|BELEN IN AN ILOCOS CHURCH, Dressed in Filipiana. Photo: Leo Cloma|
Distinctive nativity scenes and traditions have been created around the world, but they have not escaped controversy---mostly issues on propriety (characters are sometimes made to wear outlandish costumes), extravagance, and accuracy (like the presence of non-Biblical characters).
|MABALACAT CHURCH BELEN, Photo by Leo Cloma|
But whether we like it or not, the Belen is here to stay. Like the Christnas tree, parol, noche buena and aguinaldo, Christmas is not Christmas without the traditional nativity scene to inspire awe and devotion of Christ--not just during the holidays, but for the whole year through!
MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYONE!