Thursday, December 29, 2011


Building a belen is an old Chamorro custom adopted from the Spaniards.  In English, it's called a creche or nativity scene, but we call it a belen because Belen is Spanish and Chamorro for Bethlehem.  Properly speaking, a belen is supposed to look like Bethlehem, with houses, roads, trees, wells, streams, carts, animals, townspeople and whatever else you can obtain.  Typically, though, most people were satisfied with, and could afford, to buy a niño, a statue of Mary and Joseph, an angel usually placed at the entrance, a cow and a donkey, shepherds and others.

The belen usually had to be finished by December 16 or 17, depending on when the family began their nobena.

The belen was often indoors, but some families erected their belen outside in the carport because the inside of the house was too small to accommodate the number of people attending the nobena.

A typical Chamorro belen.
With the Niño

Without the Niño

Some people don't believe in placing the niño in the belen until Christmas day, since "Jesus isn't born yet."  Others don't put out the statues of the three kings (Tres Reyes) until January 6, the traditional day of the Three Kings.

A belen where the scene takes place in a cave (liyang) rather than a house.

This family has collected a wide variety of belens, only some of which are seen here.  Can you count how many separate sets are in this picture?


While many families could not afford to buy many statues or build a town resembling Bethlehem, there was one thing we Chamorros always took pride in - the lumutLumut is the moss collected in dark, dank places with a lot of tree coverage and coral rocks.  The lumut simulated the verdant grass covering the ground in and around the belen.  The more lumut there was, the better.  While in northern countries the smell of pine in the house announced the arrival of Christmas time, in the Marianas, the musty smell of lumut told everyone in the house that it was time for Christmas.


The tradition is that Saint Francis of Assisi, while ministering as a deacon at Christmas Mass, was inspired to set up a replica of the nativity scene.  From the Franciscan friars, the custom of setting up the nativity scene spread throughout the Catholic world.
In Spain, the belen can also be called the portal, the pesebre or the nacimiento.  In many cases, the belen really does replicate the entire town of Bethlehem, with flowing water and moving animals.
The belen is a BIG deal in Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries.  They even form associations who are responsible for erecting the belen in a church or a town. 
People who are skilled at putting up a belen are called beleneros (belenera, for a woman).  People who study the belen in a serious, academic way (belenismo) are called belenistas.

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