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As the country with the longest, being the earliest, Christmas celebration, we also have the brightest December festivals, and both of them happen in Central Luzon: Pampanga with its giant lanterns and Tarlac with its “Belenismo” interpretations of the Nativity. As Pope Francis reminds us in Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), “Every family should look to the icon of the Holy Family of Nazareth.”

Belenismo is a nine-year-old project of Tarlac Heritage Foundation started by the mother-daughter team of Isabel Cojuangco Suntay and her junior, Isa, to preserve the tradition of Christmas as a Filipino-family affair patterned after the Holy Family. As a community activity to bring together the province’s barangays, parishes, schools, and commercial establishments, its humble beginnings were underscored by the rule that 50 per cent of every “belen” should be styled with recyclable/recycled materials. Succeeding groups of jurors were to discover that the challenge became the inspiration – what such creative minds and hands could do with plastic spoons and forks, bottles, cola crowns, paper cups, twigs and bits of litter and trash!

And what those tiny capsules of light can do to bring a tableau to life after the sun has set! Forty-six of them are in the running this year. A parish priest narrated how last year’s prize money of P80,000 went to paving the churchyard, and if their belen wins again this year, he’ll be able to complete the project and use it as an events venue.

Not only has Belenismo brought pride to Tarlaqueños, it has spread its wings far and wide as a tourist attraction.

Under the dome of the night sky whether the moon is full or the stars are clear or not, Belenismo’s splendor and colorful lights guide natives and tourists to a collection of manmade interpretations of the first Christmas night whose endearing message mankind has celebrated for 2,000 years.

The festival ends on Jan. 6, 2017, but this Dec. 10, winners of the competition will be announced in an open-air concert in Tarlac City. Yes, Dr. Isa said, it will be a grand family affair, picnic style, at twilight time.
(Jullie Y. Daza)