Bilen and Nobenan I Niñu Jesus
(Bethlehem Nativity and Novena of the Child Jesus)
Christmas is one of the holiest and most joyful celebrations of the Roman Catholic Church worldwide. In Guam, the birth of Jesus Christ is honored through prayers and family traditions that have been passed down through generations. These traditions reflect not only historic influences from shared practices among Spanish, Filipino and Mexican Catholics, but also unique features of CHamoru culture and, in particular, the social roles of women.
The nobena, or novena, is a series of devotional prayers said over the course of nine days that are associated with the various feasts of the Catholic Church year. They are performed to honor a particular saint or feast, to request help or favors, or in gratitude for divine intervention. The formal practice of praying a novena was introduced to the CHamoru people by Spanish Jesuit missionaries. Nobenas and rosaries can be performed in church or at home. They are usually led by prayer leaders called techa, a role often held by elder women.
The Nobenan I Niñu Jesus, or Novena of the Child Jesus, is held during the Christmas season, with the last day ending on either of these feasts: Christmas Eve (December 24th), Christmas Day (December 25th), New Year’s Eve (December 31st), New Year’s Day (January 1st), or Three Kings’ Day (January 6th). It is intended for children and teaches them the prayers and songs of Christ’s birth and to reflect on the meaning of Christmas. The responsibility for following through with the yearly traditional devotion usually rests with the oldest daughter in the family and continues down through succeeding generations of women.
Preparing for the nobena involves the construction of the bilen (nativity) to recreate the setting of the stable where, according to Scripture, Jesus was born. The bilen (sometimes spelled belen) also refers to Bethlehem, the biblical location of Christ’s birth. The bilen is prominently displayed at family homes and by the altar at the village church. At its simplest, a bilen is a scene of the infant Jesus surrounded by his mother Mary and father Joseph. Additional statues may be present as well—usually of angels, shepherds, animals, and the three Kings or Magi (Wise Men) from the East, represented by Balthazar (Babylonia), Melchior (Persia) and Caspar (India). The scene may be decorated with lumot (moss) that the family would have gathered from the hålomtåno’ (jungle) and adorned with a few potted plants. Some bilen may be an elaborate configuration of rolling hills and mountains, stars, and Christmas ornaments and lights.
The bilen featured here belongs to the family of Fermina and Frank Shimizu.
Visual Presentation by Gerry Dizon- Guam Museum – Exhibit Designer