A doctor, who has a collection of nativity sets from around the world that are on display all year round at his home in Bacolod City, said they are a reminder of the true meaning of Christmas.
Dr. Ricky Gallaga, the dean of the College of Medicine at the University of Saint La Salle in Bacolod, now has 510 nativity sets from about 53 countries.
“I think the Belen is one way of bringing back the idea that Christmas belongs to our Lord and the celebration of His birth. It is not Santa Claus and the snowman and the commercialism that has engulfed our lives. The Belen brings us back to the proper perspective,” Gallaga said.
“What is important is you have Christ in your heart and you have your family with you,” he said.
Gallaga, an ophthalmologist, and his late wife, China, started collecting nativity scenes in 1990.
The belens in their collection also reflect the culture of the countries they come from, through local folklore and traditional costumes, he said.
In his nativity scene from Peru, the characters dressed in the country’s traditional costumes are not in an inn, they are on a raft boat made by tying reeds together.
The characters in his belen from Bolivia wear typical Bolivian headgear and instead of donkeys, it has llamas.
The belen is set in a sugarcane farm and the Holy Family has plenty of vegetables as gifts in a set made by Negrense artist Susanito Sarnate.
In Gallaga’s belen from Canada, each king represents a different Canadian-Indian tribe, and the animals include a howling wolf.
Another piece in his collection is a coconut shell from Peru that is beautifully painted outside and has a carved belen inside.
In a set from Zimbabwe typical art form is reflected, which includes a lot of beadwork.
The nativity scenes from the east reflect the humanity of Christ, while those from the west project the divinity of God, Gallaga said.
The largest figures in his collection are about one foot high and the smallest one inch.
All the figures in a nativity scene must face the child Jesus because that is the reason why they are there, he said.
Gallaga said before he and his wife would bring the nativity sets out every December, but it became difficult.
“Storage space and breakage with all the handling made us decide to keep them exhibited all year round,” he said.
He said his wife would clean the nativity sets herself but now that she is longer around, they are a bit dusty.
His wife succumbed to cancer in 2010.
“China would have a fit. I call it a patina of an old world touch. It is an excuse of my laziness,” Gallaga said.
The doctor said he and his wife were blessed to be able to travel because of her business with ceramics.
They would do research during their travels and would buy a nativity set from each place they would go to, he said.
Gallaga said when he was growing up he already had a fascination for nativity sets.
“We always had a big set at home. My mother had these plaster of Paris figurines about one and a half inches high with plenty of figures that we would add every year,” he said.
But even more inspiring was the nativity set at the home of his maternal grandparents, he added.
In the early 1930s his grandparents brought his mother a special gift from Madrid, Spain, which was a nativity set of 1,000 pieces, including moving mechanized objects, he said.
Although the belen belonged to his mother, it remained at his grandparents’ home until they passed away. It then went to his mother, but after WWII and lending the pieces to churches for exhibits during Christmas, the wear and tear showed, he said.
Gallaga said his mother eventually gave about 70 pieces that were left from the belen to him and his wife.
That inspired them to collect nativity sets, he said.
In one of her early trips to Rome, his wife found a simple pewter five-piece belen, and many years later his daughter bought a pewter angel to add to their collection.
That was the first belen they bought, he said.
An aunt also sold them a Mexican belen made of clay, that is very interesting and folk artsy, he said.
Gallaga said because of that set his wife, who had a terracotta business, made belen sets for sale.
There were very few nativity sets in the local market, mostly a very garish plaster of Paris sets with bright colors and with no quality control. They were not very nice. As blessings came, the nativity sets his wife made became popular not only in the local market but abroad as well, he said.
Gallaga said he has not been to all of the 53 countries where his nativity sets come from.
Since his wife passed away he only buys unique pieces that he does not have in his collection.
“Many friends have given me sets from the places I have not been to,” he said.
A lot of his friends and family are very thankful that he collects belens because they say they would not know what to give a doctor for Christmas, he added.*