Wednesday, December 2, 2009

*171. Where The Treetop Glistens: A HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

O CHRISTMAS TREE. O CHRISTMAS TREE. This native home is spruced up for the holidays with Christmas symbols like the ornamented Christmas tree and a Santa Claus cut-out, introduced by America, which in turn, were adapted from Europe. ca. 1920s.

One of the holiday traditions we observe is decorating the house to give it a festive look and liven up the merry season. We only started getting serious in the late 60s, when our mostly wooden house underwent a major facelift. While our house was still a far cry from those featured on the pages of Country Living, we felt it deserved a better “interior decoration”, especially for Christmas.

Before that, our holiday décor were all home-made—the lopsided parol hanging in our front window was just my brother’s industrial arts project, while I did the wall treatment. One year, I fashioned anahaw fans into the Three Kings, following the instructions from a craft magazine, to deck our living room wall. My eldest sister took care of the Christmas tree, which she always made from found objects—chicken wire, tree branches, crochet strings.

Christmas of ’71 was truly special to me because for the first time, we finally had a tinsel Christmas tree bought from Clark Field. It was a 4-foot tree with silver metal branches that you stick into a central pole. It came with a plastic angel tree topper and assorted ornaments, but the piece de resistance was the string of lights that my Father arranged around the tree, blinking , twinkling and dazzling the branches with rainbow colors. The only drawback was that the metal tree conducted electricity and once in a while, you get jolted by mild electric shocks. I think that tree lasted for years!

The many symbols of Christmas that we use to decorate our home are mostly of Western origin. The decorated tree for example, originated in Germany, where evergreens were used. This tradition found its way to America and the practice was cascaded down to its colonies and our Islands. Baguio had the advantage of having evergreen trees, but lowland Filipinos improvised by making do with what was available, oftentimes resulting in unique, reinvented trees.

I remember my sister fashioning a Christmas tree from twigs on which soapsuds were applied and allowed to dry to give it a fake “snowy” look. I also remember a year when “walis tingting” tree became the rage. Spray-painted and put in a pot, the “tree” was stringed with paper chains and decorated with old Christmas cards and palara stars. On the other hand, to make string Christmas tree, one had to trace a circle on a piece of plywood, the outline of which was marked with thumb tacks. A white gantsilyo (crochet) thread was tied to one tack, looped around a hook on the ceiling, then pulled taut to be tied on the next tack, until a conical shape was formed. Usually, before the process is completed, a paper belen (the pop-out variety available from a commercial bookstore) was set inside the circle as a centerpiece.

Jolly Old Saint Nicholas—or Santa Claus—had his beginnings in Europe. The Dutch speak of a hoary, thin man in red and white named Sinte Klass. Washington Irving create the image of the chubby, pipe-smoking gift-giver, but he gave it the size of an elf. In 1822, Dr. Clement C. Moore wrote the poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” which further bolstered the popularity of this Christmas figure. It took the cartoonist Thomas Nast to define the look of Santa that we all recognize today: roly-poly, rosy-cheeked, with a long, white beard, in a costume trimmed with fur, topped by a red hat and with a bell in hand.

The figure of Santa Claus easily captivated Filipinos and eventually became part of our pop culture. I remember the Christmas motorcades that originated from Clark Field, which were always highlighted by a candy-throwing Santa Claus—actually, a fat military man dressed in a red and white costume. There have been attempts to make a Pinoy version of Santa, but the idea never took off. Santa’s European alter ego, however—Kris Kringle—gave its name to the practice of secret gift-giving, popular in many schools, also known as “manito-manito”.

In the West, the Star of Bethlehem as a design motif was used on early greeting cards as well as on trees as tree toppers. But it is here in the Philippines that the star was successfully translated into native décor that has become Pampanga’s signature: the parol. Parols for the home were simple enough—five pointed stars made from bamboo sticks wrapped in papel de japon and trimmed with palara (metallic paper). The characteristic tails were made from the same, thin strips of fine Japanese paper. When one didn’t have the time or the budget, a paper lantern from colored cartolina would do. Cartolina circles were stapled together to form a simple, boxy parol which was accented by a single tail that rustled in the wind.

The most complex and spectacular parols however are the legendary star lanterns of San Fernando—virtual psychedelia in motion. The ingenious lantern makers also introduced the innovative “dinukit a parol”—in which cardboard layers were designed to give the illusion of an ornately carved lantern. In Angeles, expert kite makers dabbled also in lantern-making, creating therare and quaint fish-shaped lanterns with movable fin and tails to captivate the crowd during a procession.

The Christmas belen tradition in the country dates back to the Spanish times. St. Francis is credited with making the first manger scene in 1224. The idea spread to other European countries, and French became instant fans, creating wooden ‘creches’ for their homes. Back here, Filipino families had little Nino Dormidos carved, sleeping infant Jesus either of wood or precious ivory. The Nino was brought out from its altar and laid on a straw-lined manger to mark the days of the Nativity. In churches nationwide, the figure of Baby Jesus is held out by the priest, to be kissed by devotees right after the Christmas Midnight Mass.

Despite trying times, people continue to go on decorating sprees during the holidays, perpetuating a tradition that goes back ages. I need only to peek out from my 14th floor office window to see sculpted belens gracing building facades. The NLEX exits are once again bursting with the kaleidoscope colors of parols for sale. Christmas trees of twigs, Santa’s lighted silhouettes, wreaths and poinsettias, tinsels and tassels—all scream “Pasku na, pasku na…nananu ko pa?”. My heart sings. The sights fill me with the joyful spirit of the Season.


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