‘Tok-Hang’ in Bethlehem
There’s one Filipino Christmas decor that used to be ubiquitous: the cheap cardboard pop-up belen (nativity scene) you can just buy from any sari-sari store. We used to buy one to place under the Christmas tree (usually a DIY project) and embellished it with whatever was left of our other decorative materials. Some would add cotton on the roof and ground, thinking it was a snowy winter in Bethlehem when Christ was born. I loved adding my plastic toy soldiers or horses to the cut-out figures and made up stories in my mind of the First Noel.
This was my first image of Christmas in Bethlehem: cut-out figures of the Holy Family inside a manger with windows covered in very thin blue plastic to suggest nighttime. Cut-out palm trees, shepherds, the three kings bearing gifts, donkeys, camels and sheep surround the humble birthplace of baby Jesus. Attached to the roof of the stable, a cut-out star casts its golden rays to the infant. The whole cardboard tableaux folds flat for easy storage when Christmas is over.
Few years ago, I chanced upon a store that still sold this pop-up belen and bought it for my daughter who was still small. She was already familiar with pop-up books, and showing this belen became another fun way to tell stories, this time about Christmas.
Thus, when my client, Palm Grass Hotel, the heritage hotel in Junquera street, asked me to design an environment-friendly Christmas decor as part of their Green Christmas campaign, I thought of doing a belen using recycled materials.
I wanted to do my own bigger version of a belen with figures cut out from reclaimed plywood using a jigsaw power tool. I thought of minimizing the use of paints and thinners, so I decided to use a lot of ukay-ukay clothes, old sacks, carton boxes, banig, a buyot (straw bag), old tsinelas or flip-flops and other discarded materials which I selected for color, pattern and texture and glued using clear acrylic emulsion.
The whole work incorporated techniques of collage and assemblage using mixed media. There had to be no other embellishments, no gold or silver trimmings, no typical series lights. Only a lantern is placed above the installation to represent the star, provide cheerful illumination and to add Pinoy touch to the whole scene.
As for the theme, I thought of updating the Christmas scene to depict modern times, thinking of how Christ chose to be born among the very poor. I wondered, if Christ were born today, he would probably choose to be among the homeless, perhaps the refugees fleeing war, the evacuees whose homes were destroyed by natural disasters, or the displaced lumads or ethnic groups going to the city for a better chance of survival.
So for my artwork, I depicted the Holy Family as typical urban migrants, dressed in ukay-ukay clothes with the boy Jesus laid on a carton mat. I titled my work “Tok-Hang” to allude to the recent campaign of authorities to go house to house to knock (toktok) and plea (hangyo) drug suspects to quit the habit and surrender.
But the title is really meant to call attention to that night when Joseph and Mary, with the baby Jesus in her womb, had to flee Herod’s men, sneaking out on a nighttime journey to Bethlehem, where they would go house to house knocking on doors and desperately begging for a place to stay. They finally had to settle in a manger where Christ had his humble birth among the kept animals.
The first Christmas thus saw the Holy Family doing their own version of Tokhang in Bethlehem. My work aims to remind us of that moment as the original spirit of Christmas. That story has parallels in our present times. And yet, as it was in Bethlehem, a poor couple still found joy and hope in the birth of a child.
That paradox, of joy amidst suffering, is perhaps the true message of Christmas. It first came to me looking at that cardboard pop-up belen bought from the sari-sari store.
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