Christmas is over for many, although it does not officially end until February 2 on “Candelaria” or Candlemas. The Christmas tree will most certainly be taken down this week, especially after Epiphany – Three Kings Day – celebrated on January 6 this year.
Before World War II, Christmas did not begin, in practice, until after the Feast of Cristo Rey, as observed in the Catholic world; commencing only at Advent “to prepare and remember the real meaning of Christmas”. Christmas décor were dusted off or new ones bought – as still done today – yet the foci in Old Cebu households were not Candy Cane, Wreath, Poinsettia, and Christmas Tree but the star lantern “Parol” (not the ones from Pampanga) and the nativity scene called the “Belen”, Bethlehem in the Spanish.
In Cebu Parian before World War I, the Gorordo-Garces family staged an elaborate Belen that replicated Biblical scenes beginning with Adam and Eve. When the tableau reached its apex in the 1950s, it displayed over 200 figurines before the set passed on to the Casa Gorordo Museum in the 1980s.
Society Page editor Nelia Neri recalls that her late father, Jesus P. Garcia, a 1972 Constitutional Convention Delegate, “was the lawyer of Srta. Telesfora “Tiling” Jaen who inherited the Gorordo house. Our family had the chance to visit that house in its original form. Yes, as a young girl I was fascinated by that legendary Belen. And one thing I will always remember is the oh-so-delicious Bam-i served for lunch. That was the best Bam-i I ever ate….Oh memories!”
At the pariancillo of Tagbilaran, Bohol known in the Spanish times as “Sitio de Ubos”, it was not uncommon at the Rocha-Suarez house to serve a meal after the completion of the Belen tableau. Many pieces of the surviving Rocha Belen – said to be of 18th century style – are made of ivory, too. Bohol used to be part of Cebu until the mid 1800s, thus it is no accident that this one is reminiscent of the old belens of “Sugbo”.
One famous Belen of Sugbo’s yesteryears was the one owned by Doña Esperanza Paulin de Velez. In its heyday circa 1900, it rivalled the Gorordo Belen not only in the sheer number of its pieces but also in the intricacy of its form.
Señora Inday as Velez was known, was the daughter of Juan Paulin Cang Cueco, one of the Chinese residents of Cebu who could legally bear the Spanish honorific title of “Don”. Her Belen grew from a number of pieces from her family home in Calle Plaridel to a big collection when she moved to a roomy house surrounded by hectares of garden at “Bungtod” in Lahug – a hill now occupied by a landmark Mormons temple.
Her older Belen pieces were of “black material” remembers Socorro Lienaw, Señora Inday’s granddaughter; pieces this author believes must have been made of ebony. The later figurines that included elephants and a pride of lions were of plaster of paris from Spain. The Tableau was set up and ready for viewing when the dawn Misas de Gallo began every December 16. Except for the Five Joyful Mysteries, the rest of the Belen was rearranged each year, an effort that enlisted the family’s carpenter and the gardener. Nothing was spared in creating something close to natural and pleasing to the eye, down to the scaled detail of the trompe l’oeil backdrop.
And since series lights were rare then, Mrs. Lienaw’s father fashioned flashlight bulbs into the Christmas Star made of carved wood to complete the effect. But sadly, this famed Velez-Paulin Belen survives only in photographs.
The decline of the Belen coincided with the commercialism of Christmas, as the now defunct White Gold and similar department stores began to market it earlier and earlier with each passing year, stopping at September as the last quarter of the year began to be branded as “Ber Months”. The malls followed enthusiastically where the stores left off.
But the Covid-19 Pandemic has provided a sort of reset as focus returned to family and essentials, points out Cenelyn Manguilimotan, General Manager of Cebu Parklane International Hotel. Parklane initiated the first ever Belen Lighting Ceremony in memory in lieu of a commonplace Christmas Tree Lighting.
Over at Palm Grass The Cebu Heritage Hotel, an 80 year old Belen also became the highlight of the season. According to Palm Grass’s resident investor Caridad Guivelondo, “this Belen was created by Angela Go Geverola or Nang Laling, a native of Argao, Cebu back in the 1940s. It was part of the tradition of households in the Poblacion to put up a Belen depicting various scenes from the Christmas story, … , for the children to visit when they go caroling. Nang Laling passed on this Belen to her eldest daughter, Nestoria Geverola Saniel who put it up every year in her home at St. Jude Acres in Bulacao, Cebu City. This year, their family decided to put up this Belen in a more public place to share this important heritage with others.”
The Belen appears to have taken centerstage again, discovered that long ago and rediscovered in Covid-19 dark times, on Three Kings Day.