A Philippine Christmas Story
Memories of Christmas Past
“In the end, it is the happy memories that you remember, not the expensive gifts that you receive
By Simeon G. Silverio, Jr.
Publisher & Editor, San Diego Asian Journal
The Original and First Asian Journal in America
San Diego, California, December 20, 2003
Its only a few days before Christmas, and as usual, those Filipinos who are unable to celebrate the joyous occasion in the Philippines have to content themselves with the good ole memories of Philippine Christmas.
It is a paradox that while we enjoy freedom from want and are able to afford most of the material things we want in life with our credit cards and all, we still long for the times when we celebrated Christmas in the Philippines with less than what we have now.
This goes to show that the enjoyment of Christmas cannot be achieved through material things alone contrary to what many department stores would like us to believe. The happy memories we now cherish are the result of genuine Christmas goodwill we were able to give and receive from people around us.
My earliest memories of Christmas are from the 1950s when I was about five years old. Our family lived in one of the clusters of houses along Pepin Street between Dapitan and Laon Laan in Sampaloc, Manila. Our maternal grandparents house was across the street, while those of our aunts and uncles were on our side. One particular Christmas morning I vividly remember was when I received a small toy car from an uncle. My cousins of the same age received similar gifts. Funny thing about the 1950s. I always remembered the days then as very, very bright, with people dressed properly, just how the era is depicted even in todays movies and film clips.
My grandfather had a unique way of giving gifts to us children. He would spread flat a bunch of coins on a table, and he would ask each of one of us to scoop as many coins as one hand could hold in one instant. It was a difficult task and the most that we could get were three or four coins, but it was fun. One Christmas, a cousin of mine decided to put one over my grandfather by putting glue on his palm so that many coins would stick as he grabbed them. His strategy worked and my grandfather could not do anything but impose a new rule from then on, requiring everyone to have a clean hand before he could pick up the coins!
Aside from our grandparents, we had at least six maternal aunts and uncles, not to mention their respective spouses, from which we received Christmas gifts most of which were money. As we kissed their hands on Christmas day, we were handed piles of money, which we could hardly spend during the next few days. I remember those brand new, and crisp, green twenty-centavo and blue fifty-centavo bills which we would count every now and then before sticking them inside our bulging pockets.
Another exciting Christmas experience during that time was attending the traditional “Simbang Gabi. Although it literally means “Evening Mass, “Simbang Gabi is celebrated during dawn, at four oclock in the morning from December 16 to December 23. On the 24th, which is Christmas Eve, it would be celebrated on midnight and would be called “Misa de Aguinaldo. Those nine-day masses are considered as a novena offering to Jesus Christ.
It was fun to go to “Simbang Gabi, although waking up at dawn would be very difficult, especially during cold December mornings. Before going to bed, we would sign up for the next mornings “Simbang Gabi and those not present at the appointed place and time would be awakened by calls from the outside by those ready to go.
“Pableng, Pableng, gising na (wake up), we would call our chubby cousin who was fast asleep inside their house. Sometimes, we would knock at their door or throw small stones at their kapiz window shutters to awaken him. One time, Pabling, who was about seven years old then, could not be awakened even by our loud calls. He agreed to tie a string on his leg the next time, and let the sting hang outside their window. We would simply pull the string and, presto, there was no way he could not wake up from then on.
It was hard to rouse oneself but once we were on the street on our way to the church, the cool early morning breeze brushing against our faces as we pulled our thick sweaters closer to our body to generate more heat, the walk became tolerable and “Simbang Gabi became fun. Walking towards the church was a unique experience, with colorful lanterns and bright Christmas lights adorning every house, lighting our way. We would walk, about fifteen of us, cousins and aunts, towards Laon Laan street, up to Dimasalang and then to Concepcion street, about three miles away, where the Aglipayan Chapel was located. Sometimes we would hear mass at the University of Santo Tomas Chapel whenever our maternal grandmother, a devout Aglipayan, was not with us. We were told that the father of our grandmother was the founder of the Aglipay Church in their barrio in Culianin, Plaridel, Bulacan, and it was her duty to steer her own family towards that particular church. For us, her grandchildren, it made no difference but for my father, her son-in-law, it was a big deal, because as it turned out, his ancestors were the bulwark of the competing Roman Catholic Church in the same barrio.
The Aglipayan chapel is small and always became full whenever we, the Galang clan, would arrive. Mass is said in Tagalog, and the priest, Isabelo delos Reyes, Jr., son of the famous Filipino hero and labor leader, Isabelo delos Reyes, was always assisted in the mass by his sons since Aglipayan priests, like Protestant ministers, are allowed to marry and raise a family. I wont forget Father delos Reyes booming voice, with his crisp Tagalog words filling the chapel as he said the mass. It was a welcome change from the Latin words that Dominican priests at UST would utter since Roman Catholic masses were then said in the archaic language, and it was up to the laymen to trust that the priests were saying the right and proper words.
The long mass was quite agonizing for us children, many of whom became sleepy once again. It was quite amusing to see some heads in front of us slowly leaning to one side and pulling back abruptly; maybe it was the reason why Father delos Reyes had to say the mass in a loud and booming voice lest people fall asleep. Since the chapel was quite small, we could smell the strong odor of the smoky incense that came out of a small copper lantern that the altar boy would swing ceremoniously at one particular stage of the mass.
Once the mass ended, each one of us would line up on one side toward the life-size image of the Black Nazarene to pay homage by kissing Jesus feet. When I was growing older, I thought it might not be sanitary to kiss the same spot where people ahead of me had kissed many times before, so I resorted to putting my hand over Jesus Christs feet and kissing the back of my hand instead. I was sure our Good Lord would understand my behavior and not mind my minor transgression.
The bells in the mini-church tower would then peal loudly, proclaiming to one and all the end of the mass. We kids would feel like liberated lambs as we knew that it was all fun the rest of the way. The streets would still be dark, although the sun would slowly peek from behind the clouds as the moon faded away. We would eat “bibingka or “puto bumbong on a small makeshift “bibingkahan on the side of the church, which was put up just for the occasion. With hot tea and grated coconuts, those native rice cake delicacies were heaven to eat especially during those cold December mornings before Christmas. Sometimes, instead of feasting on “bibingkas, we would pass by a bakery on our way home. Its front door would still be closed, but we would go through a side door and order fresh pan de sal(dinner rolls) as we watched the pan de sal production line, with one baker kneading dough, another shaping the dough into one long piece and cutting it into pan de sal sizes, one putting them into the oven and still another taking the freshly baked pan de sal and putting them in paper bags. The crunchy, hot pan de sal was delicious to eat, with or without butter, on our way home.
The sights of the beautiful Christmas lanterns made of bamboo sticks and colorful papers brought joy to our hearts. During that time, the art projects for boys at our school was to make one lantern before Christmas. We would buy bamboo from the market, and during our one-hour vocational class, we would cut the bamboo into sticks, shave the sticks, tie them together to make a lantern frame in the shape of a star. We would then cover the frame with colorful paper called “papel de Japon (Japanese paper) and add other decorations before we submit it to our teachers for grading.
Small kids as we were, it would take us at least weeks to accomplish the task, but it was a rite of passage for boys like us, just like making ones first bow and arrow in a jungle tribe. When the school would close for Christmas vacation a week before Christmas, my mother, who was a teacher at our school, would bring home the most beautiful lanterns “given by her students to decorate our home. The centerpiece of those pretty decorations was always my crudely made lantern, which, though not exactly a beautiful sight, was I believe closes to my moms heart.
The most beautiful lantern in our neighborhood, however, was always the one made by a neighbor of ours who lived in the only remaining nipa hut in the area with his family. We had never seen this person personally. I did not even know until later whether he was a guy or a girl, but we knew he lived in the house as we could see his eyes peeking from a window occasionally. His mother and his grown up sisters told us that he was a leper. Instead of putting him in a leprosarium, they opted to take care of him at home. During Christmastime, some of the most beautiful Christmas lanterns I had ever seen during my entire life would be hung on their front window for all the passersby to admire and appreciate. One time, he made a carousel lantern using a thin white Japanese paper shaped like a house, with a round base instead of square.
At night, the silhouettes of different animals like horses, giraffes, elephants, ostriches, lions and others would pass around, just like the shadows of carousel figures being projected on a movie screen. The light projected by the candle inside made the silhouettes possible but to this day, I am not sure whether the objects moved around because of the smoke or the wind circulating inside the lantern.
During Christmas time, we would send each other Christmas cards at school. We would buy cards and Christmas stamps from the schools store and “mail them to our classmates in a “mailbox made of cardboard box in our classroom. Each day, one student would be named as the “mailman for the day and deliver the cards to the addressees. One of my least popular classmates always got most of the cards until we discovered his secret: he was mailing all of his cards to himself!
Caroling in the evenings before Christmas was also exciting for us kids to do. We would make musical instruments from scratch. We would pound soft drink caps on cement with a stone until they became flat. We would then put a hole in them and string them on a piece of wire with both ends tied together. By shaking them to a beat, they could produce a noise that could pass for music. For percussions, we would get empty coffee or one gallon ice cream cans, remove the covers on both ends, put a sheet of plastic made from an old raincoat tied by rubber bands on one end, and it could pass for a drum. A bamboo filled with mongo beans could pass for a “maracas. One of us would get two big stones and strike them against each other to a beat as we sang Christmas carols. It did not matter whether we were out of tune, or whether we were croaking or singing, so long as it was Christmas time, people would always have the same Christmas spirit to hand us a centavo or two.
I still remember one Christmas eve when four of us cousins, all boys ranging in age from five to seven years old, struck it rich caroling. It was Christmas eve and almost every resident in our neighborhood we sang for was in the mood to give us money. When we divided the loot later that evening, I had twenty centavos all to myself! It was the biggest bounty I ever had then, not counting what I usually get during Christmas day and believe you me, I had a hard time spending them all in one evening! After buying and filling myself up with two “hopiang hapon (bean cakes) and a piece of chocolate bar from a Chinese store on the street corner, I still had ten centavos left in my pocket!
One time, when we strayed away from our neighborhood, a group of teenagers went after us on a nearby Trabajo (now renamed Manuel Dela Fuente after a former Manila mayor) street. We all tried to ran away from them, scared by the thought that “bad men were kidnapping children carolers as our parents warned us. My cousin Pabling, the chubby one, was not so lucky. Because of his heavy weight, he was left behind and the teenagers caught up with him. We waited for a few anxious minutes near our house for him, resigned to the thought that he was kidnapped. The last time we saw him as we scampered away was when the teenagers were holding him as he was yelling for help and crying his heart out. After a few more minutes, we decided to tell our parents about his sad fate. It would certainly be a tragic Christmas for all of us, with our chubby cousin Pabling forever gone. Suddenly, from the dark end of the street, we saw the “kidnap victim leisurely walking towards us as if nothing had happened. The teenage boys, as it turned out, were just making fun of us, and if they intended to scare us to death, they almost succeeded.
Thousands of miles away
Many years have passed since those Christmas days of my youth. I am now thousands of miles and decades away from our young carefree days in Sampaloc, Manila. My grandfather died in 1957 and his Christmas gift-giving gimmicks were just tales I share with my kids and hopefully conduct on my future grandchildren. Of the twelve maternal aunts and uncles that used to give us Christmas money, ten have already passed away. My favorite cousin Pabling, the chubby kid with whom I grew up died more than twenty years ago in his late twenties after suffering a long illness. The dreams we used to talk about during the many evenings we hung out together outside our house when we were teenagers were left for me to fulfill. I could never bring back those loving relatives of mine, but the childhood Christmas experiences that they helped to become happy memories for me to cherish will always remain for me to tell and share with others.
Merry Christmas to one and all and enjoy and savor your Christmas days while they last. For in the end, it is the happy memories that you remember, not the expensive gifts that you receive. – AJ