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.
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,
“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
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
“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.
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
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
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
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