The Christmas that the Spaniards brought here was strictly a religious celebration -- rituals held inside the church, prayers and songs steeped in biblical and ancient European references -- which is why no indigenous Christmas songs came out of the entire 300 years of Spanish colonial rule.
In the early 1900s, however, the Americans secularized Christmas, introducing Santa Claus, Christmas tree, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Then and only then did Filipinos embrace Christmas and make it their own.
I think, however, that we Kapampangans embraced and claimed Christmas much earlier than the rest of the
The common folk in those early days had a way of sneaking away bits and pieces of church rituals and reinventing them into something that they could claim as their own. That's what they did with the Bible: because they were never permitted to own one, the common folk memorized the Sunday gospel readings as they heard them, ran home and wrote them down, strung them together and produced the pasyon, which is apocryphal in some parts but so what, it served its purpose as the Bible of the masses for 300 years.
Christmas was too joyous an occasion to be limited inside the church and celebrated in just one day, so it was extended to nine days, beginning December 16, and that's how Filipinos in the Spanish colonial times began the tradition of simbang gabi. I am not sure if we merely acquired it from the Mexicans; my own theory is that it was initiated by the native secular priests, which had an interim hold of the parishes vacated by the religious missionaries (who were ejected from their parishes by a royal decree sometime in the late 1700s).
But we Kapampangans did one more unique thing: we invented the lubenas. (Historian Mariano Henson wrote that by the time the town of Angeles adopted La Naval in 1830, Kapampangans had already been doing the lubenas every year.)
Lubenas came from the word novena, which means nine days, referring to the nine-day simbang gabi. But while the rest of the country was content with attending dawn masses for nine consecutive days, Kapampangans went a step farther by holding a procession on the eve of every simbang gabi, i.e., they had a procession after dinner, which means they slept late, and then woke up before dawn for the simbang gabi (or simbang bengi in Kapampangan).
Waking up early after sleeping late is a double whammy, but that's exactly what Kapampangans must do as a form of penance in preparation for the birth of Christ -- Kapampangans, after all, are known for their excesses and for taking their religion very seriously.
They are also very fond of processions. When the procession takes place on the river, they call it libad; when held on land, it's called limbun. The lubenas is a form of limbun; the difference is that it's lit not by hand-held candles but by lanterns mounted on bamboo poles.
Two rows of these lanterns, usually six on each row for a total of 12 (representing the 12 Apostles) precede the andas (shoulder-borne carriage) or carroza (wheeled carriage) bearing the santo. At the head of the procession is a lantern in the shape of a cross, and right behind it is another lantern in the shape of a fish, with movable fins, mouth and tail (fish is the ancient symbol of Christ).
In the early days, there were other animal lanterns, like lamb (representing the Lamb of God), dove (representing the Holy Spirit), and the stable animals of the Nativity. Aside from their religious references, they served as an added attraction, since processions were also a spectacle for the public to watch and enjoy, very much like a parade.
Right behind the carroza is the climax of the lubenas, a giant lantern that served as illumination to the santo on the carroza (it’s actually the origin of the Giant Lantern tradition of
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Trailing this big lantern are the singers, and the song that they sing over and over is Dios te salve (Hail Mary in Spanish), which has at least seven versions, all arranged by Kapampangans. In my hometown of Mabalacat, every barangay has its own version of Dios te salve.
The lubenas, unfortunately, is a vanishing tradition. Today, only a few northern towns in the Kapampangan region still hold lubenas in December. These are Mabalacat, Angeles,
San Fernando, Mexico, Magalang, Capas and . Concepcion
In Mabalacat and Angeles, organizers have made lubenas a competition to inject adrenalin into the dying practice. The worsening traffic situation has also made lubenas (or any procession for that matter) a risky business, which is why fewer people attend it.
The lubenas is a precious cultural gem, unique to Kapampangans. While cash prizes are a great incentive to revive interest in the lubenas, they are actually cheapening it and reducing it to the level of a lantern contest.
The lubenas, first of all, is the property and therefore responsibility of the parish, not the government or any private organization. The parish priest, through the parish pastoral council, should take the initiative in restoring its potency as a para-liturgical activity that's meant to bring Catholics back to church, like moths being lured to the light. Barangays can have their respective lubenas, provided they all converge to the parish patio on Christmas eve, like they do in Mabalacat (then it's called maitinis, or matins, “prayers after midnight”).
While government and non-government organizations must be commended for their good intentions, the local church should find ways to reclaim and sustain this charming Kapampangan tradition, and reassert its original religious intent and content.
Sunstar Pampanga (December, 206)