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Vamos a Belen!

by Vic Ferrer

The Ramon Obusan Folkloric Group will present Vamos a Belen! on December 28 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Vamos a Belen! is a two-hour musical presentation of the various ways Filipinos celebrate Christmas. The pageantry revolves around the search for an inn by St. Joseph and an obviously pregnant Virgin Mary, the birth of Jesus Christ in a stable, the visit of the shepherds, and the arrival of the Three Kings.

Since 1997, Vamos a Belen! has been a part of CCP’s Christmas celebration. No actors and actresses are involved, not even amateur ones. It is a drama performed by townspeople. The participants are preteens or young swains and girls in full bloom. Or they could be old men and women.

For material Ramon Obusan, founder of the dance group that bears his name, draws from more than 30 years of research. Originally focused on the documentation of ethnic dances and music, he has turned his attention to the way simple folks act out the greatest drama of them all: the birth of the God-child.

The Pastores

Christmas in the Philippines is an occasion for mirth and levity. Solemnity is observed in church, not on streets where pastores is held. The whole stable cast shares in the merriment. The scene is from last year's 'Vamos a Belen!'.

In many places the reenactment of the first Christmas, which invariably involves dancing and singing, is called pastores or shepherds. It goes by different names in some parts of the country: panunuluyan in Tagalog, panarit or posada in Waray, kagharong in Bicol, and daigon in Bisaya.

Christmas is joyful celebration. In the hands of Filipinos, its observance becomes an occasion for mirth and levity. St. Joseph and Virgin Mary, a role usually reserved to the prettiest barrio lass, smile a lot. So do the shepherds and angels, all played by preteens. Generally, it is the young men and women who do the dancing. The old folks, the repository of the town’s oral tradition, mostly recite or sing the verses, although they too sway to the music.

The verses are in Latin, Spanish, the dialect of the place, or a hodgepodge of the three.

The tradition is deeply rooted in Bicol and the Samar-Leyte Region. It also lives in some towns of Cagayan Valley and sporadically appears in Zamboanga, Bohol, Cebu, Sequijor, and Negros.

“It must have been the Dominicans who introduced the pastores,” Mr. Obusan ventures to say. “It is in these places where members of the Order had their mission.”

Mr. Obusan transforms the spectacle into a feast of color and sound, but he is careful not to deviate from the actual dance steps, the hand movement, and the verses sung or recited. In many cases he uses the original performers, flying or busing them from their communities to Manila.

As he did last year, the multi-awarded choreographer and scholar is bringing in the Aeta of Floridablanca, Pampanga, to showcase their traditional songs and dances.

The Aeta, regarded by lowlanders as pagans, have embraced the idea of the Son of God, who was born in a manger. So have the Bagobo of Davao and the Agta, a tribe in Siatan, Negros Oriental, who go around town singing and dancing in praise of the Child Jesus.

“It is unfortunate that these indigenous people do their routine just to earn a little money,” Mr. Obusan says. “Which is why they are seen in the lowlands only around Christmas. It pains me to realize that the season of gift-giving is turned into an occasion for begging, and that says a lot about the failure of the government to take care of them.”

Mexican Influence

Mexican influence is readily apparent in this pastores in Talisay, Camarines Norte. The tradition, of course, originated in Spain. What is not widely known is that it went through a profound transformation before it reached the Philippines.

Of course, the pastores originally came from Spain. What is not widely known is that it went through a profound transformation in Mexico before it reached the Philippines. Nowhere else is this more apparent than in Talisay, Camarines Norte. Here, pretty maidens sing and dance clad in china poblana skirts while three young men with fake beard hop around on papier-mâché horses.

“The costume, decoration, and music are a direct import from the culture-rich Teposotlan region of Mexico,” Mr. Obusan points out. “Somehow, home-sick Mexican sailors from the Galleon trade must have found their way to this place and taught the practice to the locals.”

The pageantry would undergo further modification in these islands. In Orbos, Leyte, the nativity is told with the devil—part man and part monkey—as the villain. He waylays the shepherds who are on their way to pay homage to the Saviour, but an angel comes to the rescue. In Tolosa, of the same province, the devil is pitted against an angel.

“How the devil did, well, the devil get into the picture is anybody’s guess,” Mr. Obusan wryly observes.

In Maluco, Aklan, the pastores, here called Ninos Inocentes, is closer to the Biblical account. King Herod returns as the bad guy, but with a twist. He kidnaps and holds the newborn child for ransom. Only when old women come with a sack of rice or corn does he release the Infant. These are gentle folks. They cannot imagine anybody so cruel as to order the slaughter of innocent children, much less the Christ-Child, who comes to save all mankind from sin.

Another curiosity is the Infantes of Sanchez Mira in Cagayan Valley. Fifteen young girls barely in their teen dance in unison clicking bamboo castanets, while their male partners bang away on tubtubong or bamboo percussion instruments. The pairs are dressed in Bavarian costumes.

Other Versions

Dance number from Tubog, Albay. The people live in the shadow of majestic but deadly Mayon Volcano. The folks pray for deliverance in religious rituals performed all year-round. This pastores is just the culmination.

Albay, a part of the Bicol Peninsula, has its own versions. In Tubog, people, who live in the shadow of majestic but deadly Mayon Volcano, pray for deliverance by performing religious rituals the whole year round. The pastores at Christmastime is only the culmination.

In Bungiawon, 15 lovely girls transform bright colored plastic bags into skirts. Another group of comely girls perform intricately coordinated twists and knots with their white hand-held arches. In Camalig, the glory of the pastores lies on a string band, whose members are getting old with nobody interested in the instruments. In Malilipot, grandmothers drop their abaca weaving chores to go caroling from house to house.

The pastores also lives in Sorsogon, another province in Bicol. In Bulan, young boys and girls don flowing robes made of jute sacks in an attempt to recreate the “authentic” Mid-Eastern look. In Pilar, singing and dancing was an activity for young girls until wives of government officials and ladies of prominence took over, no doubt to the chagrin of young men.

In Laurente, Eastern Samar, the pageantry centers around the panarit, which means to drive away. Joseph and Mary are denied a room at the inn by the owner, and so they have to repair to a stable.

In Mercedes, the stable scene is performed by townspeople taking on roles of the Holy Family, the magi, and the shepherds, all dressed in whatever come handy: curtains, faded blankets, pieces of textiles.

The oldest performers can be found in Taft, who inherited the roles from their elders long before the last war, and they’re still at. The same holds true in Libagon and Talisay, Southern Leyte, where old women already past their 60’s still recite and sing verses in praise of the Messiah. In Bontok, the unfolding Christmas story culminates in a mass.

Colorful costumes are the rule in Dumanjog, Cebu. Although the Holy Family remains the center of attraction, the richly clad Three Kings steal the scene as they march on the main street on their way to the grass hut, where Christ sleeps in the manger, all the while singing the daigon or carol.

People of Abra and Ilocos Norte also celebrate Christmas but in their homes. The much-awaited show in town has nothing to do with the birth of Christ. The sakuting, called comedia in other Luzon provinces, is held instead.

Introduced by missionaries, the sakuting retells the struggle between Christians and the Moors, with a stylized fight sequence. The outcome is never in doubt, but the townspeople come to watch anyway.

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