Mindanao's romance with Christmas lights

ILIGAN CITY (MindaNews/24 December) — I have been traveling these past weeks and I am amazed at how, across Mindanao, Christmas lights have created magical places, filling children with wonder and awe! Fortunately, it is safe to travel at night in most of these places so the sojourner is better able to appreciate how these lights dispel the darkness in what otherwise would be depressing locations.

I’ve taken the road and journeyed across cities, towns and villages, across Surigao, Davao, Bukidnon, Misamis, Lanao and Zamboanga these past three weeks and one thing is certain this Christmas season: there are a gazillion twinkling light bulbs hanging on live and plastic trees, lamp posts, church towers, public squares, roadside signs and checkpoints. There is an urge out there among tens of thousands of Mindanawons to provide glitter to the dark nights if only to manifest a deep sense of hope as to what Christmas can bring to their lives!

Seeing all these lights, one assumes Mindanao is not faced with an electricity problem.  Everyone has this assumption: the electric companies are able to provide the necessary electricity to keep the lights glowing until the end of this long Christmas season in these parts of the world!

There is no doubt about it: Tangub City is the queen of Christmas lights!  The local government and the people of Tangub  take pride in their city’s label – The Philippines’ Christmas Capital!  For close to two decades now, the Tangubianos have exerted all creative efforts to transform their small city into a Christmas wonderland. Every year, thousands of people from the adjacent provinces of Western and (Southwestern) Mindanao flock to Tangub to see for themselves what this Christmas extravaganza is all about.

One’s  first visit to Tangub’s Christmas village is always a thrill. However, those who champion minimalist aesthetics may be turned off by the garish displays where everything is mixed without rhyme and reason. The nationalist Pinoy may be put off by the very overt colonial vestiges in terms of the booths’ displays privileging Santa Claus and his reindeers, the fake snow and the  very Hollywood-influenced Bethlehem scenes.  An American nun who came for a visit was so disappointed not to find a belen scene where the features of Joseph, Mary and Joseph are those of Filipino faces.

Still, one cannot help but be amazed at the ordinary Tangubianos’ creativity in terms of delightful designs and the use of indigenous materials including all that can be used from the coconut tree, bamboo,  rattan, corn and other products of the peasants. Those advocating recycling of waste could only be happy at how plastic bottles and discarded CD discs are used to create items such as trees, flowers and even a whole rotating globe!

Extraordinary folk art – in gigantic pieces and not just small decorative items -  is one of the best features of Tangub’s Christmas village!  These are products of the ordinary citizens of this small city; not formally trained artists of metropolitan cities. They are able to put up these art exhibitions through accumulated artisanship honed through collective efforts passed on from one generation to the other. It is the citizenry of this city from the politicians to the carpenters, the organic intellectuals to the pupils in the elementary school, housewives to the agricultural workers who labor together with a common vision to come out with this Christmas show which has become a source of their identity and pride!

And if imitation is the best compliment, then the Tangubianos can take a bow because their creative output is now replicated in many parts of Mindanao, especially around its western peninsula.  The famous arkos in Tangub are now being put up in highways in the neighboring provinces of Zamboanga del Norte and Misamis Occidental. The belens where the camels, donkeys and sheeps are made of indigenous materials are everywhere in public plazas and church squares in the cities of Ozamiz, Pagadian and Dipolog. The tall Christmas trees all made up of local materials have sprouted in places where people congregate  and their design can be traced back to those that appeared for the first time in Tangub’s Christmas village.

This year, something has been added to Tangub’s magical Christmas landscape at night.  With the local government of Tangub City linking up with its counterpart in San Fernando, Pampanga (another Christmas capital in the country with its gigantic parol lanterns), Pampangueno lantern artists have conducted workshops in Tangub City to teach the local parol makers their lantern art.

Now, Tangub City has its own huge star lanterns, small in comparison with those in San Fernando but still a feast for the eyes at night. More than twenty of them are hanging on trees surrounding the church of Tangub City. Except for the usual technical problems of bulbs refusing to light up, these parols truly bring the sojourner into a contemplation of the wonders of the Christmas star that shone on the night when that baby was born in a manger in Bethlehem.

Elsewhere, children across Mindanao have their delightful encounter with Christmas symbols. In Davao City, the focal points are the People’s Park as well as downtown’s Rizal Park. Davao’s city government has budgeted a sizable amount to spruce up these parks and hang thousands of lights. The trees stand majestic with all the star lanterns and at Rizal park there are free rides to the carousel (alas, this one has no lights!) and the elephant swings. I brought my grandnieces and grandnephews to these parks last week and part of the thrill was in competing with hundreds of other children wanting to take the rides or use the various facilities of the park.

For all the efforts of Davao City to provide recreational facilities for children, there are just far too many children and too few parks for them to use as playgrounds!  Other cities don’t even have at least one small playground for their kids!

However, all big towns and small cities have spaces for the season’s displays of Christmas trees, lanterns, belens, snowscape and razzle-dazzle. From Tagum City through Carmen and Panabo, there are endless street lights. Across Bukidnon (especially from Quezon to Manolo Fortich through Valencia and Malaybalay) until one reaches Cagayan de Oro City, and then on to Iligan City the street lanterns and lights are everywhere.

Because most of Mindanao’s cities now have apportioned the downtown areas as sites for night markets (tiangges), these areas are also consuming lots more electricity with the additional lights. Traffic jams are now a reality of these places even as the Christmas shoppers are delighted with the ease in finding cheap consumer products. The downside, however, is that places like Divisoria Street in Cagayan de Oro have lost their elegance and beauty as promenade parks.

One’s enjoyment of the Christmas season is enhanced only if one takes on the eyes of children.  From their view of the world, places could be magical and full of joy! Christmas lights have such a major contribution in terms of turning drab places during the day into magical landscapes at night. As moths are attracted to any kind of light, so children are drawn to all that which transform an ordinary place into a wonderland!  And blessed are the children for they have not lost the gift to view the world from such innocence!

While the critical mind asks all kinds of questions while viewing all these Christmas displays – How long can we have all these colonial symbols dominating our Christmas art? How long can our sources of electricity sustain our need for energy without us setting our sights at coal-fired power plants? Are all these expenses for Christmas festivities justified in the midst of poverty? – the sojourner who takes time out to enjoy the season in the company of children opens up to the ambivalence of it all. And in one moment, yields to the magic of lights of the Christmas season! (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, is author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” and the recently-launched “The Masses are Messiah: Contemplating the Filipino Soul,” writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English [A Sojourner’s Views] and the other in Binisaya [Panaw-Lantaw].)