Monday, April 14, 2008


SEASON’S GREETINGS. Christmas cards originated in England in the mid 1800s. The tradition was brought to the United States and the practice was introduced to the Philippines. Here, a custom-made photo postcard (pre-dating commercial cards)shows a young Guagua beauty framed by a horseshoe (a good luck symbol) with a traditional “Merry Christmas” greeting. Circa 1920s.

Whether you are young or old, Christmas is always a magical time and a lot of my pleasant, deep-seated family and hometown memories are pegged on the Yule month of December. For us elementary students growing up in the ‘60s, the month ushered in a long vacation that started on the 15th of December all the way to the 1st week of January’s Feast of Atlung Ari. But before we got to enjoy our hard-earned break, we had to complete certain school activities and duties associated with the holidays. That included the expected parol project for our Industrial Arts class. For a week or so, we whittled bamboo sticks to make the framework for our 5-pointed star lantern. With a bit of gogo paste, tinsel and papel de japon, my classmates showed off their skills with elaborate creations: multi-pointed stars, figurals, Japanese-style, triple-tailed lantern varieties. The more advanced students even had mobile lanterns that were wind-activated! For those hopeless with pliers and knives like myself, the frameless cartolina box lantern was the easy solution.

Our classroom also had to be decorated with Christmas ornaments, budget permitting. Red folding paper bells (usually bought from Atching Tali’s stall outside the school), were hung on door beams. Poinsettias were hand-drawn on the borders of the blackboard with pink and green chalk. A pop-out paper belen of the National Book Store variety, was the centerpiece of our room. Of course, our bulletin board displayed our hand-made Christmas card collection, products of our art education class, fashioned from Oslo paper, colored paper (6 for 5 centavos), palara glitter (from cigarette wrappers) and library paste. A mushy dedication copied from some old commercial Christmas card was handwritten with a ball point.

And the Christmas school parties!
This was the best time yet, as we got to wear and show off our party clothes instead of uniforms. Our parties were the usual “bring-your-own-baon” types but I do remember one occasion where we contributed one peso each for a smalltime caterer who prepared for us spaghetti with Mafran ketchup sauce and thin slices of Philips sausages. Our “Kris Kringle” culminated in a major “exchange gift” ceremony, highlighted with the revelation of your “manito” (gift sponsor-partner) . My favorite gifts included Curly Tops chocolate (already boxed for 75 centavos), hand towel and soap or toothbrush set, bought from Ong Sin Siu, our local neighborhood Chinese store which carried everything from groceries to perfumes.

Back home, our Christmas décors were more spectacular. From soap-decorated twig Christmas trees and coconut fiber trees, we finally got a silver tinsel tree (courtesy of our American friends, the Dandridges) from Clark, complete with an angel topper! We copied all the available American traditions, hanging red net Christmas stockings (packed with Brach’s candies, mini-chocolate bars and plastic toys) and putting our gifts under the tree. I still remember my favorite gifts: a harmonica, a tube of Tinkertoys and a coloring book featuring all the presidents of America, ending with Kennedy, which I still have. I also recall attending one dawn mass at our Mabalacat church where I was transfixed at the sight of the newly spruced up and brightly-lit Nativity altar. Mary, Joseph, Jesus and even the shepherds and animals seemed so alive and animated while a shrill soprano sang endless “Jesu!Jesu! Jesu!” to the accompaniment of violins. Last time I checked our belen, the shepherds and their flock of animals have all been removed from the altar, with the starlit background inexplicably changed into a bright daytime scene.

By Christmas morning, while there were no more gifts to open, we looked forward to receiving Ingkung’s aguinaldo envelopes containing crisp P5 bills. Sadly, in 1968, this tradition came to a stop with his death in December, our bleakest Christmas ever. Thereafter, a whole day of feasting and receiving guests followed, with platefuls of kalame ubi, bibingka, panara and ensaymadang Malolos eaten and shared. But, as always, time runs fast when one is having fun; before we knew it, it was back to the normal grind for us—plodding through school, work, summer, Holy Week, the typhoon season, All Saints’ Day-- until the coming of the next merry Christmas!

(20 December 2003)

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