In the 1960s (1964 to be exact), in our small village of Toto, Christmas was a joyous time. As a youngster then, I wasn’t aware that it had only been 20 years since the war ended and people’s lives and homes were just beginning to rebuild from the devastation of the bombardment by the US forces in reclaiming the island from the Japanese and two devastating typhoons – Typhoon Lola in 1959 and Typhoon Karen in 1962.

Our entire predominantly Catholic village was involved in the preparation of the Belen at the church, which overflowed into helping those having nobenas in their homes. Currently the nobenas are usually held in homes where the mother or daughters do it as part of their “Promesa’ to the Nino Jesus, for a total of nine days. By the second Sunday of Advent, the Holy Name men fathers/older sons would begin building the platform for the Belen inside the church. The Boy Scouts and young catechism boy students would be in charge of finding and gathering the lumot (moss), and the Christian Mothers and Sodality girls would make a plan for the flowers and ornaments.

In our home, Nana always had her Godson David Materne assigned to get the lumot, the galak feda’ and the pi’ao for her Belen. My two elder brothers, Manuel and Joseph, had both left island for the US Navy, leaving David and his brothers – all the crew that was needed when Mom required muscle help. In the CHamoru home, the Hada or Hado (godchildren) are considered family, and can fill in as a child of that home in the absence of a family member. In most earlier homes with open garages, cars were never parked in the garage year-round. Garages were mainly used for people, events, and of course the Belens.

CHamoru Christmases are like no other. My favorite Christmas event was the finakpo’ especially when we would go around the village to do the “mannginge Nino” on Christmas Day and every Sunday thereafter, inclusive of New Years’, until the Three Kings celebration on January 6th. We would already know which homes had the finakpo‘ on Christmas, New Year and Three Kings. The families would tell us to make sure we’d be there for the last nobena when they would put the Church’s Nino in their Belen to be honored with the singing of the Dandan i Pandarettas. We always had a lunch break before we finished covering the whole village.

There was no coordination as to whose nobena was going to begin when. It was an individuals choice for reasons their own. The three most popular dates were: December 17 –  25 with a finak’po (final rosary) on Christmas Day; then December 24 – January 1 New Years Day and December 29 – January 6 (Feast of Three Kings Day). As with other nobenas, the tradition of hosting it is usually passed down through generations to members in the family, by the person whose Promesa it was. Considered an honor to inherit the tradition, a Promesa is taken very seriously.  

Just to share how things have gotten so out of hand with doing nobenas in the 1980s, I came home in 1984 for my Mom’s funeral and I was blown away when I saw a sign on Marine Drive in Aniqua, advertising lumot for $50 a bag full. In the 1990s, it was $100.

Part of the joy and meaning of the construction of the Belen is the labor of gathering the usually all-natural materials, for that beautiful earthen scent of the moss, the fern and, the bamboo.

I share this story, as I know many readers who remember their part in Christmases past however small, but still memorable. I did carry on the traditional Nobenan Nino while living in the mainland (Alaska, Washington, and Georgia). The most hilarious of these was our nobena in Lacey, Wash. when an uninvited nosy neighbors called the sheriff to report that there seems to be something cultish going on at 1008 Deerbrush Dr., as there had been people every night for the past four nights chanting, praying and singing with loud voices. What laughter we had being cult members!

Magof tiempon i ninangga-ta ni’ i Nino Jesus.

By Emily Sablan

Emily Sablan is a storyteller from First Ridge, Toto. She served as a certified interpretive guide, park ranger and education outreach specialist at Ritidian (Litekyan) for US Fish and Wildlife Agency until her retirement in 2019.