When I was growing up in Manila, Christmas was a joyous holiday. By now, everyone must know that the Philippines celebrates the longest Christmas season in the world. You can start hearing Christmas carols being played on the radio as early as September and it can go on until January which ends on the Feast of the Three Kings. It’s quite unusual but it’s how we, as children, got to enjoy the happiest holiday on earth.
We were not rich when I was growing up. You can probably say, that by today’s standards that we could be considered to have been in the middle class back then. Yet, getting new clothes for Christmas was a routine. We would be accompanied by my dad to his tailor and we will be fitted for a “Christmas outfit”. Whether it consisted of a new pair of pants and a button-down shirt or an overall “jumper” as they called it back in the 70s, it was very exciting for us.
Growing up in a huge family of 10 siblings and about another gazillion cousins who live close by, Christmas was a family thing. It is a time to reflect, go to church more often and spend time with family. As Christmas drew near, one could sense the hustle and bustle of our household. My mom becomes very busy in planning for the holiday meal, we were changing draperies to brand new ones and tablecloths that are festive fit for the occasion. My brothers would pull the “Christmas Tree” from the “bodega” and we would assemble it as a family. You know what I was in charge of during this ritual? I was in charge of taking the Christmas lights to the local hardware store and have all the bulbs tested to get it to work. Discard the defective ones and replace it with new bulbs. Another fun task that I am lucky to have been assigned to was the scraping of styrofoam boards to create fake snowflakes that would be spread all over the tree once it was complete.
The holiday was definitely filled with family memories. We would sometimes go to “Misa de Gallo” or “Mass of the Rooster” together as a family. I would wake up only because of promises that I would be able to eat “bibingka” (rice cake) and “puto bumbong” (a purple-colored dessert made of rice cooked in bamboo tubes) and that I would be able to go back to bed afterward. After midnight mass on Christmas eve, we would gather around a big dinner table and partake of the meal prepared for us during what we call “Noche Buena”. On Christmas morning, as children, we would wake up early to pay our uncles and aunts a visit including our godfathers and godmothers to receive as much cash as possible. I grew up with no traditional Christmas gifts under the tree but a wallet full cash on Christmas morning. These are simple yet meaningful traditions that I remember of Christmas past. Memories that I miss very much.
Now that I live here in the United States, we tried to keep most of our Filipino traditions while my parents were living. We held onto those traditions as long as we could. We would even hold Nativity re-enactments using my nephews and nieces as the Holy Family and the baby in the family plays the role of Jesus in a manger. That was then.
Since my parents passed on, my family slowly grew apart. Living in different states doesn’t make it easier for us to get together on holidays. My siblings all have their own families and their families are growing in an accelerated phase. I am the only single person in the family. In the beginning, I would normally participate in Christmas gatherings because their families were small then. My siblings and I would gather in one household (be it in New York or Maryland) and spend Christmas time together with my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Now, one household can be filled with just one family. My nephews and nieces have children of their own now and when they gather together, it is their Christmas memories that they are building for their children. I don’t have a problem with that. It is just that as time flew by, it became more awkward for me to attend these gatherings. I felt like I was an outsider. Of course, they don’t have a problem with me being there because they want me to be a part of their Christmas celebration. It is I who have the problem.
As Christmas draws near, memories of my past come flashing back. It makes me very grateful that I have those memories in my memory bank that I can pull each time the holidays come around. It makes me smile and remember my loving parents and grandparents even way back then when we all lived in Manila. What makes me sad is that we all got so busy to even try getting together for the holidays. Getting together is a major undertaking. Some of them work (most of them are in health care) and some don’t want to tackle the crazy holiday drive. As the years went on, the get-togethers became less and less. Nowadays, I prefer to spend time with friends who don’t have families of their own as well. In that way, no one feels awkward and everyone still gets to enjoy the holidays in a modern yet traditional way.
Now, I live in a town where there are Filipino migrants all over. My own parish has a very tight-knit Filipino community and they even celebrate the “Misa de Gallo” at 5:30 a.m. for nine consecutive days before Christmas. I completed my first one last year. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to complete it this year as I will be traveling in the first few days when it begins on December 12th. Completing my first Rooster’s Mass was very special. I felt like I belong to the community again. They sang Filipino church songs and Christmas songs in Tagalog. At the end of every mass, several tables filled with food are offered for free to the attendees. It’s a real communal celebration and I was really glad that I was able to experience it.
This is why Christmas is both a joyous and sad occasion for me. I miss my parents. I miss my family.
My friends have become my new family. And for that, I am most grateful.
Until next time – I will post photos of my recent travels to Portugal, Germany, and Montreal. Tonight, I just felt the need to emote. 🙂
Maligayang Pasko po sa inyong lahat.