We each have a unique Christmas, our very own. It is similar to those of others — dates, elements, practices, food —but we each gathered through the years the stardust to shape our own stars. What we remember — the lanterns, the rituals, the presents, the family, the food, the smells, the individual joys — no one else does, in just that combination.
Let me offer you excerpts detailing the Christmases of two favorite people. The late E. Aguilar (Abe) Cruz of Magalang, Pampanga, journalist, editor, artist, raconteur, Francophile, gourmet, wrote “Christmas Signs” in 1957:
“SIGHTS — Ten-foot star lanterns for the local lantern-making competition … the only Christmas tree in town, in the bungalow of the American principal of the provincial high school … acacias seen dimly through the fog … the new Almanaque del Dr. Ross on display at the drugstores … next year’s calendars hung like works of art in the sala … Local claret, both dulce and seco, on the dining table beside an overflowing fruit bowl … a new chocolatera, of new-fangled enamelled tin, in place of the venerable and battered brass pot … bottles and bottles of achara … leche flan shaped like the Sacred Heart … brand-new copper coins turning up among the loose change …gleaming toy revolvers …”
“SOUNDS — Church bells at 3 A.M. announcing misa de gallo … shuffle of feet in the dusty street, going churchward … sound of distant brass bands … firecrackers … pasodoble on the organ as the choir loft breaks out into the recessional … Victrola at leading drugstore, endless playing the “Toreador” song … thud-thud of kitchen knives on cutting boards all over the neighborhood softening up bistek for the feast … calesa bells simulating, for schoolboys raised in Santa Claus lore, the jingle of sleigh bells … squeaks of jack-in-the-box, “the latest imported toy.”
“SMELLS — Anise seed on white rice bread … fresh-fried panada … smoke from pig roast in the neighborhood, fragrant with fat drippings … winy scent of day-old boiled chestnuts … apples just unwrapped … milagrosa rice coming to a boil … newly cut Edam … the burnt edges of rice cakes fused with the banana leaf … hot tea … dama de noche … roasted cocoa beans … cinnamon and cloves … caramelo and gin … firecracker powder … onions and garlic … lard on your fingers … Eclat on your cheeks …”
Multi-awarded poet, essayist and fictionist Luisa Aguilar (Carino) Igloria, now teaching at the Old Dominion University in the U.S., contributed “Soup and Coffee, Poetry and Love,” to Feasts and Feats (Ateneo ORP, 2000), a festschrift for me. Here are excerpts on the Christmases of her Baguio childhood:
“I knew it was the Christmas season then when the air thinned out even more than usual — you could tell by the way it entered your nostrils in cool slivers: a fine, sharp toke drawn in a clean line all the way up to your brain. Your breath, exhaled, curled away from your face in powdery trails and it was even better than watching dust motes float in sunlight. Early mornings, if I looked in the moist corners right under the porch, I knew where to find clumps of the mint my mother planted and … called yerba buena. Its deep green leaves had deckled edges; they were tiny, wrinkled hearts I liked to tear into pieces with my fingers for the smell. Occasionally, there was a spider web encrusted with frost, and my mother’s red and yellow poinsettias, turning our scraggly garden into a Christmas card. …
“Christmas in Baguio also meant waking up at three-thirty in the morning to hear Christmas music — the works: traditional carols and even popular ones like ‘Silver Bells’ and ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ — blaring from the St. Vincent Church belfry. I suppose it was part of the simbang gabi schedule, something meant to help prod folks gently out of bed. … It meant Christmas, too, when a rich ninong, or a kumpadre of my parents would send their usual presents of queso de bola and Chinese jamon — the salty kind, the one that my mother would boil in a large pressure cooker, with pineapple juice and beer, brown sugar, bay leaves, and cloves; the kind that you saved the ham bone from, for making several weeks’ worth of soup stock. …
“Mint leaf, crackling laurel leaf, nails of spicy clove. And what of the apple? The holidays were the one other occasion — apart from when someone in the house was really sick and they were bought as a special treat for that person — that there were Red Delicious apples and Valencia oranges on the table. Maybe four or five of them at most, for they were expensive, wrapped individually in tissue. Mostly they appeared on the New Year’s Eve table, picked for their round shapes promising luck and abundance in the year to come. In my family, the standard Noche Buena fare was always either arroz caldo or sotanghon soup, scalding hot, yes, and sprinkled liberally with toasted garlic and the festive confetti of chopped green onions. The only variations … I remember throughout the years were once when my mother tried out a pinaupong manok sa asin recipe; from time to time they also made arroz valenciana, sweetened with raisins, slivers of spicy chorizo, and strips of red and yellow bell peppers, and garnished with quartered hard-boiled eggs, to satisfy an obsession for malagkit or glutinous rice.
“Before Christmas Day itself, there were numerous opportunities both to walk with friends and relatives from door to door, or to wait behind one’s own front door for other carolers to finish their concert sung to the rhythms of a spoon on an empty sardine tin or milk can, or shake to a rattle improvised from tansans … strung together on a wire bracelet. After a typical round of ‘Sa-ay-lent night, O-o-ly night‘ and ‘Sopas da voice of an angel,‘ a lustier finish would ensue with hilarious local renditions of some of these carols. For example, ‘Joy to da word, gawed ken bua / adda pay apog na /ngalngalem ket ngalngalem / sakan ko itupra, sakan ko itupra / kitaem, kitaem, nalabbaga‘ (Joy to the world / areca and betel nut chew / and there is even lime; / chew it up well / then spit it out, spit it out / and look, look, the color is red!) There would be a little pause, and then the voices would lift in a final ditty that to me embodied the simplicity of the season and the proper humility before grace — ‘Uray no kuarta, uray no kendi, pada-pada nga awatenmi’ (Whether it’s money, or only candy, we will gladly accept your gifts and treat them the same).
“These lyrics celebrate a homegrown openness and humility in the face of both hardship and celebration, those twin seasons which seem to alternate with little sense of respite between them — an endowment extended to the food we prepare and which we eat and share. Filipino food functions as markers not just of region or culture but also of those features that prove our historical capacity for adaptive and inventive change through good times and bad. Simple at heart with its core of boiled or steamed rice, vegetable and fish dishes, Filipino food nevertheless shows its dynamism and absorption of a multitude of influences, from Malay to Chinese to European. But it is its capacity to evoke communal and joyful involvement that strikes me as that which we perhaps miss most, when we say we hunger for home cooking, or simply that we long for home.”
And what do you remember of your Christmases past, wish for the present, and hope for the future?
~ by Doreen G. Fernandez, © 2000