Reminiscing Christmas Back Home
by Ruby Bayan
"Pasko na naman, o kay tulin ng araw..."
Yes, the season is upon us once again, whether we like it or not; whether we'll have a chance to savor puto bungbung with our loved ones again... or, like last season, eggnog instead.
The blinking red-and-green decorations, the nostalgic Jingle Bells tune, and the smell of the crisp morning breeze trigger subconscious stirrings deep inside me, and cast their spell wherever I go -- but more especially now that I am half a planet away from where I grew up.
Strolling down the busy strip malls in Florida, waiting in line to see the season's top grosser movie, or picking out a fresh Douglas fir tree for the living room, I feel the tug of the holidays in my Pinoy heart. And no matter where I am, the tucked away memories of Christmas in my homeland seem to spontaneously come alive.
"Simbang Madaling Araw" is what they should've been called -- the nine days before Christmas meant waking up at 4 am to walk like puffy-eyed shivering zombies down to the parish church where the Simbang Gabi bells rang in darkness to call the congregation.
I'd make sure my alarm clock didn't fail to wake me because I didn't want to miss this dawn ritual. All of my friends and neighbors would be there -- milling around the puto-bungbung vendor forcibly tapping a purplish delicacy out of a bamboo cane, as the sun rises to herald another cool day in December.
After mass, I'd be among the churchgoers sauntering back home to a breakfast of arroz caldo, and getting ready to hit the tiangge for the best deals on pamasko items. Some days, though, I remember, I'd promptly go back to bed.
The Simbang Gabi triggers many nuances associated with the Filipino Christmas Holidays. When I was a child, after the midnight mass, my friends and I would gather bags of tanzans from Aling Tonang's sari-sari store, and we would each grab a rock to hammer the metallic bottle caps flat, use a fat nail to punch a hole in the middle and then string the flattened disks through a thick wire to create a quaint jingling tambourine for our caroling circuit.
As soon as night fell, my little friends and I would hit the streets. Working in pairs or trios, we'd race to various street corners in our neighborhood, and render our angelic and heartfelt carols in front of every house that had lights on.
Some homeowners would wait for us to finish our "Oh Holy Night" before opening their doors; some would hand us coins after the first note to shoo us away. Of course, there would be those who'd be quick to turn off their lights to pretend no one was home; but that didn't stop us from checking them out again the following night.
We'd take note of which homes were generous enough to dole out more than ten centavos and then tell our fellow-carolers to go and jingle their tanzan tambourines there, too. By the time our parents wondered about our whereabouts, we'd be dividing our earnings for the night. Oftentimes I'd be ecstatic because I was taking home a walloping 75 centavos for one night's work! I would fondly imagine that when I grew up I'd be a famous singer... or door-to-door salesman. Ah, I had simple joys then.
Ninongs and Ninangs
If there's one thing my parents looked forward to, it was Christmas Day when all their inaanaks, my godbrothers and godsisters, came to visit. The leftover Noche Buena dishes would remain served on the table all day, for relatives who drove from the provinces, children whom we see only this one day each year, and neighbors who came by to share cellophane-wrapped homemade sweets and delicacies.
My father would have small envelopes with names I only hear on Christmas Day and he'd pull them out one by one, as kids and young adults came to him to make mano. His welcome words would be the same year after year, "Ah, ito ba si [name]? Ang laki na! Istigosantos, anak!" ("Is this [name]? All grown up! God bless you, my child!")
Near the end of the day, my brother and I would be the ones to don our Christmas best and troop to our godparents; and they'd also hand us little envelopes with our names on them; and they'd also say "Istigosantos, anak!" Before bedtime, my brother and I would count and compare our pamasko loot to find out whose godparents were more generous that year. I remember when we'd jump on the bed holding up about ten crisp five-peso bills and scream in jubilation, "We're rich! We're rich! Pasko na naman!"
Queso De Bola and Hamon
My memories of Christmas back home are triggered not just by blinking lights and catchy carols; they're also awakened by the smell of simmering glazed ham and freshly sliced extra sharp cheddar cheese. My Mom's kitchen would be steaming with the aroma of fruitcake, caldereta, hamon and paksiw na lechon throughout the holidays.
Buko salad and fresh fruits would literally overflow from the fridge, and an endless supply of multi-color-wrapped yema, pulvoron, and mini custard pies would continue to pile on the dining table from well-wishing friends and neighbors.
I swear my Mom would tirelessly cook food to feed a village during the holidays. And a village would usually come to partake and appreciate my Mom's homemade treats -- like clockwork. In my innocence, I simply assumed that was how it was everywhere else.
Christmas in a Foreign Land
Now that I'm here in the US, with another holiday season fast approaching, I can't stop reminiscing all those yuletides I spent with my parents, my brother, our neighbors, and godparents.
But I have another life here, a different one -- where puto bungbong is a hyperbole, caroling is seen only on TV, and not all the neighbors celebrate the birth of Jesus.
With me out here thousands of miles away, my Ninongs are spared from extending their "istigosantos," and I have to resort to watching my godchildren grow only in pictures. My Noche Buena will be a table of honey-baked ham and apple pie, candy canes and cranberries. And the holiday cheer that I will share with my family will have to cross the oceans and travel through the phone lines.
There are hundreds of reasons I appreciate the life here in the land of milk and honey. When the holiday season comes, however, the reasons somehow seem to escape me, and I catch myself sighing in melancholia, "I wish I were spending this Christmas with my family back home." Well, maybe next year.
[First published at Basta Pinoy News, 2000]