Celebrating the Christmas ‘belen’

McDonalds Capas













Forget about ‘dashing through the snow’; in Tarlac, a local festival celebrates Christmas in a very Filipino way with a grand manger-making festival

By Joachim Valdes

There has to be some form of national travesty in the fact that most Filipino kids grow up knowing how to sing Jingle Bells every Christmas, without actually knowing what our own perception of Christmas is. After all, we’re singing about “dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh” in a country like the Philippines. We’re more likely to dash through traffic at 0.002 km per hour, in a kalesa, for P50 per head.

Growing up in this archipelago means preparing for Christmas celebrations as early as September, and that arguably makes the Philippines a very Christmas-minded country. But our perceptions of the season have been so informed by that of Western traditions that really, it’s difficult to imagine what the Pinoy idea of Christmas is. And that’s what makes the Belenismo Festival in Tarlac so unique.

Municipality of Paniqui
Municipality of San Manuel
Municipality of Sta. Ignacia
Nays House

The Belenismo Festival is an annual tradition of the province of Tarlac, one of its most renowned festivities and arguably one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Philippines. When Rev. Father Alex Bautista came up with the idea to reintroduce the belen to the people of Tarlac, Isabel Cojuangco, together with her daughter Dr. Isabel Cojuangco-Suntay, conceptualized the idea of a festival-competition hybrid that allowed for resident Tarlaqueños to highlight their artistic ability in their interpretations of the famous Nativity scene. It is now on its ninth year since its inauguration in 2007, and is a tourist must-see every Christmas season.

Isabel Cojuangco and her daughter Dr. Isabel Cojuangco-Suntay

Why the belen, though? Such a question begs to be asked. After all, we’ve simply attached our various ideas of the holiday season to that of our colonizers—Santa Claus, snow, Christmas lights, presents under the tree, noche buena; probably throw in a bright, colorful parol for good measure. Why, then, would you go with the Nativity scene? “What can we celebrate that has not been celebrated?” Dr. Suntay said. “We don’t have fresh flowers from Baguio. The Kiping Festival in Quezon province, the Maskara Festival in Bacolod…How do we compete with those? And so, with Fr. Alex being a priest, and my mom being a Catholic, we thought, ‘What about a Catholic festival?’”


Festival is ongoing until Jan. 6, 2016.

Read more on Tarlac’s Belenisimo Fesival inside the magazine, available in all leading bookstores nationwide or downloadable from the Asian Dragon Magazine App, free on Google Play Store, iTunes, and Amazon.

Portrait by Kai Huang

Other photographs courtesy of Edward Dela Cuesta


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