CHRISTMAS is a visual feast.
Of all the indelible memories I retain from my youth, the belen is at the center.
The tableau of the Child born in a manger, witnessed only by his parents, animals and shepherds, still spins many versions in my mind.
Long before I saw the irony of the world’s salvation prefigured in that rude birth, I was drawn to the infinite opportunities of storytelling fulfilled from merely standing in front of a belen.
This must have been fueled by the traditional visits we made to grandparents and aunts. Theirs was the generation that did not merely set up a belen but staged one, complete with several hands to paint and spruce up the figurines and backdrop, and create a Bethlehem landscape that, in its reinterpretations, strayed far from the factual and Biblical settings.
One aunt had chalets and castles and hail, made of tiny balls of Styrofoam, littering the orderly streets overlooked by the Child beaming from an animal’s feeding trough placed inside a cave. Every December, another aunt reconstructed on her own the tedious, painstaking mechanism that made this woman-made waterfalls trickle as backdrop to the Child receiving guests, the human and the beastly.
When my eldest was born 18 years ago, I, too, started my family’s belen. I searched for a figurine of the Child not long after my son’s birth in September. Yet, it was only a few days before Christmas that I took home a box padded with wood shavings to cushion a tiny figure.
The quest almost became fruitless because I often took an instant, unshakeable dislike to the vapid, simpering, sly faces of nearly all of the figurines I scrutinized from downtown to uptown, from shelves thickly coated with an air of neglect to the glass-encased displays that once carried the cryptic sign, “Lovely to look at but yours to take home once broken”.
One I eventually took home, not because I intentionally dropped it to get a sales clerk to decode the shop’s English but because the figurine passed the “Nora Aunor eye test”.
According to a movie critique read once, the eyes hold the secret why Nora happens to be the greatest living actress of the country.
Prepared to risk his life at the hands of fanatic hordes of diehard followers of other actresses like Vilma Santos, this critic argued that only Nora can pass the challenge of having one’s face, hair, body and even screen partner covered so that only her eyes are unmasked.
Only the great Nora has those fathomless pools of feelings. Everyone else is just acting.
So at this store selling religious items where my grandmother once had a stint of selling at a time when married women were expected stay home, I found the Child. I also took home the crib of twigs it was lying in.
At the headrest is a cross with an errant horizontal bar. It always looks as if some wind is doing its best to blow away that feeble cross.
Both the cross of twigs and the Child with Nora’s eyes have stood well the years.
The plastic Little Tikes barnyard animals, then the K’Nex assembly and later, the Star Wars crew have all been given away. These were the toys my sons played with, the same ones they arranged around the Child when Christmas drew near.
Makebelieve can be rough. The figurine has lost the tip of one little finger. When the neck snapped, we performed emergency reconstruction. Fortunately, there is always glue at home.
Following the story-bending traditions of the women in the family, my sons and I recreate the Belen around the Child every year. Luke Skywalker may not have been in the scene at Bethlehem, but in the boys’ stories, he was. The kid with the Force in him and the other Kid, born one silent night.
Now, instead of toys, the boys ask for permission for sleepovers. Now, the Transformers fellows hanging around the Child are “collectibles,” grown-up toys teenagers will never move around or weave stories about.
The Child still has Nora’s eyes. When my hands cover everything else except for those depthless pools, I hear the boys’ stories again.
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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 18, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column