As a child growing up in the Philippines, I could always tell when Christmas was fast approaching. Unlike today, when the build up to Christmas starts as early as the day after Todos Los Santos, or All Saints’ Day, Christmas carols were never played on the radio until around the fifteenth of December. It was also the same time when children would go around town caroling at night, in the hopes of taking advantage of the goodwill of the season and make some money to spend on Christmas presents. My sister Ennie and I were no exceptions, and armed with a ukulele and a pair of maracas, she and I would join a couple of other schoolmates and sing door to door. We’d maybe get five or ten centavos here and there, which divided into four didn’t really amount to much, but it was an adventure that I came to look forward every season.
The excitement starts early December in my father’s store, when one of the older sisters would bring down from the storage area, boxes of Christmas ornaments and strings of multi-coloured lights. One by one the old ornaments would come out to be inspected and dusted, ready to hang and decorate the store. Every year they would be the same ornaments and garlands, but seeing them again out of their boxes was such a thrill for everyone we didn’t mind that most of them had been around so long, their paint had almost rubbed off. There were angels, Santas with beaming faces and round rosy cheeks, antlered deers frozen in mid-jump, bells and holly leaves all made from extremely fragile and delicate painted glass.
An hour or so before closing time, when the regular stream of customers had slowed down, we would start hanging the garlands around the display shelves and the supporting pillars and then decorate them with the little figures. The exhilaration of seeing them again after a whole year was enough to put everyone in a festive mood, and it was just a matter of minutes before everyone was singing Christmas carols that added to the enthusiasm.
Part of the excitement was the knowledge that school will be out for a couple of weeks, and the mini vacation was something all of us looked forward to with great delight. Whereas Monday morning classes usually started with everyone in the school assembling for the singing of the national anthem, Lupang Hinirang (Chosen Land), Friday afternoons in December meant gathering in the quadrangle after school for a rousing chorus of familiar carols in English and Tagalog: Ang Pasko ay Sumapit (Christmas is Here), O Christmas Tree, Hark the Herald Angels, Natanaw Na Sa Silangan (Seen in the East, a Tagalog version of Silent Night).
The making of the parol, star-shaped papier mache lanterns made out of bamboo and papel de Hapon (Japanese paper) was a mainstay of arts and crafts classes during the season. Some as a matter of course come out more fine-looking than others, but all handiwork always ended up in the traditional school closing lantern parade around the neighbourhood, when hundreds of these creations are suspended on long poles and held high, all the better for everyone in the neighbourhood to see and admire.
Usually when one of us brought home a parol deemed good enough for the front window of the apartment we lived in, my father would hang it up and install a light bulb inside the star to make it glow at night. Otherwise, if none was considered pretty enough, we would simply go out to the market and pick our favourite, usually a large one with a fancy design. Many houses would also have their parol and lights display, and I remember waking up some chilly nights when all was quiet and dark, look out the window and admire a sea of twinkling Christmas lights and glowing lanterns, all the while enjoying the cool, crisp December air.
The biggest thrill of all was setting up the Christmas tree. The era being the sixties, we used to have a very hip and mod looking aluminum one, tall and spindly and kept as standby tree. But Ate Nelia, being as good in crafts as she is with her baking, would always come up with variations on the Christmas tree theme. Sometimes it would be the very traditional evergreen that in the tropics grew dry very rapidly, shedding needles so fast that by the time Christmas day comes along it is ready for the trash.
I distinctly remember some of the more atypical ones: the walis tinting tree (originally meant to be used as a yard broom, made out of a bunch of the centre spine of coconut fronds), painted in silver and decorated with tinsel, or the chicken wire shaped into a cone and stuffed with papel de Hapon used to fill the holes, and most unusual of all, Wheel laundry soap cut into cubes and studded with toothpick so they resembled porcupines, then stacked on top of each other to make a tree shape. This last one did not hold up so well, as every now and again gravity will take over and one part or another will cave in, and had to be rearranged all over again.
December 16 is the start of the official Christmas season with the simbang gabi, or midnight mass. Very late at night, the church courtyard would start filling up with food vendors eager to get their share of the Christmas business from those attending church. Most popular are the stalls that make puto bumbong (purple glutinous rice snacks with coconut cream cooked in bamboo tubes) and bibingka, another rice flour treat baked in banana leaves over traditional clay ovens. It would also be the time of year when my father, on his occasional buying trips to the wholesale market in Divisoria would bring home a bag of kastanyas, roasted chestnuts which were always a special treat.
From then on it always seemed to be non-stop eating, culminating in noche buena, the traditional midnight meal on Christmas Eve. In my family it was always a big spread: macaroni salad or spaghetti in tomato sauce, imported fruit cocktail in cream, cocktail wieners on sticks decorated with marshmallows, bright red cherries and pineapples and as a centerpiece, the ball of Edam cheese given to my family as a present by our neighbour grocer Ching and his wife Gochang. If our Tiya Ape and her family came, she could always be counted on bringing along her meatloaf dish called everlasting, which is cooked in a way that it could sit out for days without spoiling, hence the name. After such a heavy meal, it is amazing that anyone could even sleep for the night, but of course we children had to, otherwise Santa Claus will not come to bring us our presents.
Of course he always did, and what we find under the tree very early Christmas morning was usually an indication of how well my parents’ business did that year. On good years, it is not unusual to find that Santa (or in our case, Ate Nelia, for I always knew it was her who organized these things) had left imported chocolate candies, dolls and toy cars under the tree. The times we found boxes of the local Curly Tops chocolate candies in our Christmas socks and nothing else, would have told us that it was not a great year. Regardless of what was under the tree, we were always grateful, and just the mounting expectation was thrill enough on its own.
Christmas day is the traditional day to visit ninong and ninang, godfather or godmother, for Christmas presents. Except that my siblings and I never did, as my father always thought it was not something he wanted us to do. So on occasion, presents from some of our godparents would show up at the house, and then it was a real bonus, especially if the godfather, like my Ninong Sergio happens to work and live in Japan and could afford to send a remote controlled toy car, an extreme luxury present if there ever was one during those days.
Despite his reservations about us visiting our godparents, my father was extremely generous to his own inaanak or godchildren, and he had dozens of them! All through the day, a seemingly interminable procession of children would come to my parent’s store to kiss my parents’ hands and wish them merry Christmas. While my father would only have one godchild in the family, all the brothers and sisters always came with the godchild as well, and because it was Christmas, no one was turned away empty handed. It would be a relatively small amount per child, maybe a peso each, but when you consider that some families come with six or eight children, it became a substantial amount my parents handed out each Christmas. Sometimes towards the end of the day, we’d joke to my father that he probably didn’t even know if half of those who came were really his godchildren, and he would laugh and agree with us.
It would have been just as convenient not to have been open for business Christmas day, but I guess with the sales they made that day and the amount doled out, everything balanced out, and at the end of the day my father could rest easy knowing he did not turn anyone away. Seemingly, and because my father’s generosity was legendary, everyone (and not just children) came: Mang Fredo who collected our garbage, policemen and sundry local government workers (so many that it is not unheard of for some of my sisters to spend the whole day before Christmas wrapping presents of socks, towels or handkerchief), neighbourhood children and even the aboriginal people of the nearby mountain of Antipolo, the pygmy Ita, so rarely seen even in those days.
The Christmas season in our area continues on with the loud New Year celebrations and the yearly fiesta in the adjacent barrio of Santo Nino. The season officially ends on January 6 with Epiphany, or Pasko ng Tatlong Hari, in honour of the three wise men that came to see the infant Jesus. After that, life returned to normal; all the Christmas decorations would have been taken down, which usually depressed me along with the thought that we all go back to school the following week. Inay always knew that it was tough going back after the holidays, and to soften the ordeal, she would always prepare a special treat for supper the night before classes resumed: relyenong bangus (stuffed milkfish) and ginisang munggo (dried yellow mung beans in chicken stock), two of my most favourite dishes.
© August 2007