Tarlac is bounded by the provinces of Pampanga on the south and Pangasinan on the north, with vast land areas for sugarcane, rice and agricultural crops. Tarlac folks adapted cuisine and dialect depending on which provincial boundary they were nearest to -- either Capampangan or Ilocano. This was the farthest my conversations about Tarlac went. But all that changed this year. I went to the Philippines in November. A surprise awaited me.
Tarlac province is now home to Belenismo sa Tarlac, an annual event of life-size, fully illuminated Belen displays that dot stretches of highways and roads of the province and its 17 municipalities and one city.
A “Belen” is a recreation of the Christmas nativity scene with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. “Belenismo” is Spanish for the art of making a Belen. Its origin goes back to 1223 when St. Francis of Assisi, then a deacon built the first one.
Belenismo sa Tarlac was started in 2007 by the Tarlac Heritage Foundation led by Mrs. Isabel Cojuangco Suntay. Her daughter, Dr. Isa Cojuangco Suntay, is the prime mover of Belenismo. Popularly known as Dr. Isa, she took time off from work in Manila and drove to Tarlac to show me the Belens.
We started viewing Belens at sundown, by 5:30 p.m. on a hot, humid afternoon, typical of Tarlac. This 2015, Belenismo has 42 official entries, but others display Belens even if they are not registered participants. The crèches come in varying life-like sizes.
Belenismo transcends economic classes, political and religious choices. Participation is voluntary. It is open to individuals or groups. Cost of materials and electricity for displays are covered by the entrant. It is important for the Belen to be along a main road. The use of indigenous materials – especially those indigenous to Tarlac – is 50 percent of the tipping point for judging. Displays are up from November to January 6. Prizes are awarded in December. Winners are chosen for each of the five categories, ranging from 1st to 3rd prize.
"Some used corn husks to make the entire Belen. Dayami (hay) is also made into beautiful Belens," Dr. Isa said.
Recycled or discarded materials are creatively spun into magnificent displays. We drove all the way to the town of Pura at night, through narrow barrio roads, and the only thing that illuminated the long, dark stretch was a brightly lit Belen the Lanoria family made with recycled soda cans.
"Belenismo's goal is for everyone to say a prayer," Dr. Isa said. Every Belen comes with a displayed prayer, in any dialect or language spoken in Tarlac -- Capampangan, Ilocano, Tagalog or English.
"Every Belen has a story," the tireless Dr. Isa said. Each story she told me revealed the person's beliefs and traditions.
Belenismo has made Tarlac the “Belen capital of the Philippines.” It brings out the best in each citizen. There have been no thefts, no vandalism in its eight years. "People watch out for each other. Those who live near the Belen look out for their neighbors."
Manila Bulletin columnist, Julie Yap Daza, one of Belenismo's judges, wrote: "It brings together parishes, farmers, soldiers, teachers, students, families and neighborhoods."
Judges are artists, journalists, creative-minded and prominent citizens who come all the way from Manila. They work pro bono to support an annual event that brings out the best in Tarlac folks and promotes tourism.
From the farthest towns and back to the busy streets of Tarlac City, every Belen I saw showcased painstaking craftsmanship. Each Belen was a powerful tableau. Belens lighted the dark roads of Tarlac from the distant barrios to the quietest towns. Soft shadows flitted and bright beams lighted the paths for us, with the sound of crickets in the background. The illumination was not just from the flickering lights, but it was also from the forces of faith, hope and love that shaped each creation. The Belens shone brightly like diamonds against the dark night sky.
Looking at the dazzling lights and the different colors dance, I was filled with pride. Belenismo taught me I did not need to look far to search for peace. I simply had to look deep into the world I once called home to know there is still goodness and kindness amid the turmoil of world events. I wanted to capture all the words, images and feelings Belenismo stirred in me. I wanted the world to know the spirit of the season was right here in the hearts of the people of my Tarlac.
Belenismo sa Tarlac is from November to January 6. For tours, contact the Tarlac Heritage Foundation firstname.lastname@example.org 63-915-537-3827
Elizabeth Ann Quirino, based in New Jersey, is a journalist, food writer and member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). She blogs about Filipino home cooking and culinary travels to the Philippines on her site AsianInAmericamag.com.
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