FIESTANG BALEN: Biography of a Town Fiesta
Concepcion, Tarlac, Philippines in the 1920s
by Lino L. Dizon
For anyone who is neither taga-Concepcion nor a native of this town in southern Tarlac, Central Luzon, Philippines, there is always the query about its observance of two fiestas: Fiestang Patrun and Fiestang Balen. A taga-Concepcion or a native would readily elucidate the matter with a mélange of piety: it would be sacrilegious to integrate the Fiestang Patrun, the feast day of their patron or pintacasi, Apung Imaculada Concepcion, with the mundane revelries of the Fiestang Balen.
In the mid-1800s, pioneering families of what was to become the town of Concepcion became cut off from their kindred in the matriz of Magalang after several natural disasters. Before this time, both pueblos still belonged to Pampanga. When they were cut off, the pioneers left their patron saint of 300 years, San Bartolome, and adopted Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception as their own, believing that Our Lady protected them from snakes that abounded in their initial place of migration, the barrio of Matondo (now Sto. Niño).
With the founding of their own town east of Matondo in 1863 and their own parish on 20 August 1866, they still carried with them the patronage of the Immaculate Conception, to whom both the pueblo and the parroquia were dedicated. Since that time, Hermana-Mayores were meticulously chosen to oversee the annual observance of the Immaculate Conception’s fiesta, held every 8th of December. In the Roman Catholics’ Calendar of Saints, this is known as the solemnity of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.
The Church of the Immaculate Conception, circa 1900s
The town’s Fiestang Balen was celebrated every 25th of April. According to the Calendar of Saints, this is the feast day of Saint Mark, the Evangelist. However, since the saint could not be connected with the local history of both the town and its parish, the people of Concepcion have forgotten why the Fiestang Balen was celebrated on this date.
From the 1950s, practical-minded officials from the municipio had considered ordinances to fuse the two fiestas. However, the manangs or devout ladies of Concepcion, serving as the guardias of Our Lady, vehemently barred such motions. Nevertheless, around the time of Martial Law in 1973, when even the town’s most famous son, Sen. Ninoy Aquino, was placed behind bars, there was a successful move in the name of frugality to discard the Fiestang Balen; its commonplace celebrations and merriment thus became integrated with that of the Fiestang Patrun. Unfortunately, the town experienced, on more than one occasion, a major destruction by fire during the common observance of the two fiestas. A number of years later, triggered by these unexplained calamities, the townsfolk decided to separate the Fiestang Patrun from the Fiestang Balen once more.
Since Fiestang Balen is a civil affair, quite likely it was inaugurated to celebrate an important personage of the town. The town fiesta of Paniqui, Tarlac, for example, is celebrated every third Sunday of March and is in memory of Don Melecio Cojuangco, a Diputado or Assemblyman of Tarlac who died during his incumbency in 1909. Another probable occasion for the town fiesta of Concepcion may have been to honor Don Serviliano Aquino, born on 20 April 1874. Coincidentally, his son, former Congressman Herminio S. Aquino, shared the same birthday as the celebration of Fiestang Balen on April 25. The April 25th date may have also marked the commencement of the initial rice-harvest season at a time when harvesting took place only twice a year, with the people of Concepcion using the occasion of the Fiestang Balen as a form of thanksgiving to involve their whole town and unifying its various barangays.
On the visperas (eve) of Fiestang Balen, the whole patio would already be filled with a gareta of barrio folks, who would stay until the fiesta commenced. Older people have recalled a similar celebration in Concepcion known as Kabukiran, where the agricultural products of the different barrios were displayed around the poblacion, especially in the marketplace. Certain expressions, still utilized in the present, reflect this poblacion – barrio symbiotic ties. Labas ku (lit. “ I will go out”), for example, is a Kapampangan phrase used by somebody from the town who is going to a barrio, indicating the poblacion as his point of reference and demarcation. A barrio folk going to the poblacion uses the phrase “muli ku (“I will return [to my home]”), suggesting the town as his original residence or those of his forbears.
Some people of Concepcion mentioned that the Fiestang Balen was actually the fiesta ding pacacalulu (feast of the poor), which indicates a class struggle in Concepcion. It is said that, at the start of the summer vacation, the rich people of the town, usually the landed gentry or the hacenderos, were already in Manila or Baguio, leaving the whole town to their kasamaks. The fiesta of the rich is actually the Ding Masibucan Grand Ball. Initially called the Young Merry People of Concepcion), it was founded in 1925, with Don Benigno Aquino and Miss Isolina Palma (eldest daughter of Don Gregorio Palma, who was then mayor of Concepcion) as the first President and Lady President, and held on New Year’s Eve. This rich-poor dichotomy may have surfaced during the period of Socialism and the Hukbalahap in the 1930s and 40s.
It is possible the April 25th fiesta originated from the petit carnivals that mushroomed during the first decade of American Rule in the Philippines (1900s). By 1908, the Manila Carnival has become a part of the urban lifestyle. One writer believed that “it was an attempt to bridge the gap created by wartime animosity among Spanish, American, and Filipino residents. The carnival helped start the year right…”
The climax of the Manila Carnival was the Carnival Queen coronation. Voting ballots for the Carnival Queen were printed in newspapers and leading magazines, such as the Graphic and Philippine Free Press, in the lead up to the coronation. Concepcion, like many other towns in the three major island-regions of the Philippines, would have its own carnival, in imitation of the Big Carnival of Manila. For some time, the highlight of the Fiestang Balen was also the crowning of a Miss Petit Carnival of Concepcion.
Queen Paz I, Miss Petit Carnival of Conception in 1927
Both adults and children eagerly awaited not only the beauty queens of the Karnabal – as the dominant Kapampangans of the municipality pronounced such an event – but also the piyalben quing patiu (sights in the town square). The early 1900s would have been dominated by the musicus (brass bands) parading around the town and the arcos (arcs) built in the heart of the plaza festooned with banderitas, where zarzuelas and crissotans were held. Later years would have seen the karnabal become more mechanical, with the arrival of the arueda (ferris wheel, from the Spanish rueda), the merry-go-round and other rides, collectively called chubibu (literally, ‘pacifier’ in Spanish). And each taga-Concepcion, irrespective of social class, would be eagerly inviting fiesta-goers to their dining table or even their lowly dulang, sharing genuine hospitality and their taung fiesta, like the lechun, the bringhi, the achara, and the putu lansung.
The Fiestang Balen of yore would not be complete without its magpiperias (sellers) and the magbebetu. The streets surrounding the patio were filled with hawkers plying their merchandise of baril-barilan (wooden guns), drums, curang-curangan (toy pots and pans) and delicacies like the bichoe-bichoe. On the other side would be the magbebetu (dice-players) and their card-holding banqueros (dealers) catering to the parroquiaños of monte and sacla (or salampac).
Yet, unlike the Fiestang Patrun, which was integrated with civil celebrations, the Fiestang Balen cannot be held without religious rites – the hierarchy from heaven probably did not see any conflict of interest this time. Usually held after the Lent, the Fiestang Balen season began with the cumpilan (sacrament of Confirmation), in time for the pastoral visit of the Arzobispo from Manila (later by the Obispo from San Fernando and Tarlac), a day or two before the actual fiesta. Then there was the tridua (triduum), the binyagan (baptismal rites) and the Mass for the fiesta, especially for the mamanata (devotee) to the Apung Concepcion. For these occasions, the church premises would be filled with sellers of estampitas and galang-galang, a brawny, doughnut-shaped bread, believed to be blessed.
An account of the Fiestang Balen of Concepcion, Tarlac gives us an idea of how it was held then, in1929, commencing with the visitation of the Archbishop of Manila, Michael J. O’Doherty:
Queting 15 ya ing migulutan carin dinatang queting balen ing Sr. Arzobispo bayang mañgumpil itang cabucasan. Tutung masaya ing parañgal dang pepaquit qñg Ibpa ning casalpantayan, mica discursos caring arcos á mitalacad qñg dalan. Qng convento, mica discurso antimong pasalubung á penasbuca´ na qng amanung ingles ning Dr. Benjamin Barrera. Caibat ning apunan ing Dr. Castro ya na nang mengamanu qñg amanung castila. Dacala ding mecumpil itang cabucasan, inia ing Prelado tutu yang matulang meco queti balen.
In the 15th of the previous month, the Archbishop arrived in the town to make confirmations the following day. The ceremonies held in behalf of the Father of our Faith were truly festive, there were discourses [poetical jousts?] held in the arks [temporary stage] fabricated in the streets. In the convent, there were arrival speeches; first done in English by Dr. Benjamin Barrera [son of Don Barrera, former Municipal Presidente of Concepcion] and, after supper, in Spanish by Dr. Castro [probably Dr. Federico, the son of Don Moises Castro, the municipal presidente of the town during the Revolutionary Period]. There were many confirmations the next day and so the prelate left the town very much satisfied.
This was followed by an account of the actual fiesta:
Quetang 25 ya ing abril, pigmasayan da ing fiestang balen qñg dacal á sayajan, metung yang minie matas á cule ing Petit Carnival á tegunan da ding libulibung tau. Dacal á reinas at princesas at aliwa pang titulong darala’ nang antimong asuc ning masalusu nang añgin ning panaun. Ing pisamban tutu yang melati caring dacal á taung sinimba itang cafiestan. Masayá la ding bale at maganacala ding maquibale tutung biasang lumingap caring carelang dalo.
Last April 25th, the fiestang balen was celebrated with much festivities; one that gave its high color was the Petit Carnival that was attended by thousands of people. There were queens, princesses and other titles that were brought like smoke in the swift passage of time. The church was truly dwindled by many people who attended the mass during the fiesta. Houses were in merry mood and their owners were hospitable who know how to attend to their guests.
One could still encounter the magpiperia (peddler) and the magbebeto (a dice game dealer) in the Fiestang Balen of Concepcion. However, big buildings have now replaced the nipa huts and invitations to taung fiesta have dwindled. Everybody is now blaming the hard times.
Lino L. Dizon is a faculty member of Tarlac State University and has written a couple of books on Philippine Local History and Culture, a number dealing with the biographical form. His work, APOSTLE OF THE AETAS: Fr. Juan Perez de Santa Lucia OAR and his Capas (1845-1864), is forthcoming.