Celebrating Christmas has always been about coming home, catching up with longtime friends and looking forward to a big family reunion. Waking up before sunrise to hear the early morning mass, better known as Misa De Gallo or Simbang Gabi for nine days straight before Christmas Day, is a testament of sacrifice and devotion to one’s faith.
All these were disrupted when the pandemic struck last year, which made us stay home and watch Simbang Gabi online.
It’s been a tradition as well for my family to travel to my wife’s hometown in Basey, Samar almost every Christmas, but that, too, has been disrupted. Coming from a huge clan, their family reunion has always been filled with endless conversations and laughter. To complete the very festive experience, it’s set in a small, rustic town where almost everyone knows each other.
We wanted our townsfolk to experience how Christmas was when we were children. The air of joy, the excitement of things related to Christmas is what we wanted to bring back, now that we are hopefully going back to normal.
As health and travel restrictions have begun to ease up, coming home to Basey for Christmas was our topmost family priority. This year also coincides with my wife, Hazel, and her sister Hasia being the Hermanas for this year’s Christmas celebration.
“More than seizing the opportunity to provide a fuller experience for our Basaynons to go out and celebrate Christmas once again, I wanted to bring back the good childhood memories of how we have known Christmas based on our traditions and practices,” says Hazel Zeta-Dy Tioco, when asked about the inspiration behind organizing this year’s festivities.
One of the main attractions that has been gaining attention for the past few days in Samar island is the themed belen of the Misa De Gallo festivities of St. Michael The Archangel Parish Church, which was built by the Jesuits during the late 17th century.
The themed belen is presented in a unique manner, where the statues are painstakingly changed every day to depict the characters discussed in the Gospel of the Day that leads to the celebration of the Nativity.
“Though this concept has been introduced by past organizers, we wanted to achieve a more engaging manner of appreciating the Gospel through a more visual yet traditional storytelling,” volunteers Hasia Zeta-Ramiso.
Taking a cue from the Hermanas’ brief, lead creatives Nicolai Merida and Joel Manacpo, who are high school teachers by profession with backgrounds in history and music and art, respectively, produced the Christmas altar and belen with simple yet festive decor to highlight the rich history and tradition of their parish church.
“St. Michael The Archangel Church is the iconic symbol of Basey, so we came up with this year’s design that had reference about its history and inspiration from how the Nativity story was told from the New Testament of the Bible,” they explain.
Of the 11 characters featured in the Nativity, only six statues were used to depict the different portrayals in the Gospel. The statues were not specially made, but rather they are all decades old and had to be refurbished and restored.
“New clothes were made for the characters, but we did away with the usual pomp style of the past nativities. We opted for a much simpler but elegant style using modern fabrics to give focus on the story,” says Merida.
The overall design and themed belen instantly went viral on social media, and people from other neighboring towns started to trickle in with rave reviews about the belen statues of Basey. Even at the height of Typhoon Odette, whose wrath thankfully spared Western Samar, attendance during the Simbang Gabi festivities was unexpectedly high.
“Both my sister and I agree that we wanted our townsfolk to experience how Christmas was when we were children,” Dy Tioco says. “The air of joy, the excitement of things related to Christmas is what we wanted to bring back, now that we are hopefully going back to normal.”
That Christmas spirit has spread throughout the town as the Zeta family initiated a Barangay Nativity Scene and Christmas Lighting contest, through the help of their father, Honesto Zeta, currently vice mayor of Basey.
It was such a very enriching experience. More than the Misa De Gallo festivities, it was a Christmas like no other indeed.