Sunday, October 24, 2010


MISS DECEMBER. A Kapampangan child from the Lilles family dresses up for a Christmas school play, in a costume representing the holiday month, complete with a mask, moon, stars and a paper crown with the number 12 in Roman numerals. Ca. mid 1920s.

There’s a certain spirit in the air whenever December comes, instantly turning on the holiday mood as the sights and sounds of the season come alive everywhere: carols on the radio, lanterns on the streets, Yuletide d├ęcor in homes, and yes, the dip in the thermometer, a sure sign of the approaching Christmas season.

To a child growing up in the 60s, December will always be a month unlike any other—for it meant shortened school days, a long vacation and one or two weeks of exciting holiday activities before the actual Christmas Day. You know it's really that time of the year when our Teacher-in-Charge starts ordering us to bring out our shoeboxes of Xmas ornaments stowed in our classroom cabinet. In my elementary school days, I remember how we turned our classroom into a virtual Winter Wonderland. The centerpiece was a Christmas tree fashioned from a real tree with branches covered with lots of cotton balls.

We decorated our tree with chains made from colored paper, and cut-out figures from old Christmas cards. Glitter was made from old cigarette ‘palara’ and more generous classmates would donate five-centavo Chinese folding paper lanterns with tassels of string. Traditional star lanterns of bamboo and papel de japon were all hand-made—which, after being graded by our Industrial Arts teacher, were quickly hanged above our door.

There would also be hurriedly-practiced Christmas presentations, which consist mostly of singing carols learned from our Commonwealth era music books. We played "manitu-manitu", our version of Kris-Kringle, in which mystery benefactors gave small surprise gifts for you every day—bubble gum, a hand towel, a sachet of balitug (roasted corn kernels), a bar of Choc-nut. The identity of your donor is revealed on the day of the Christmas Party, where more gifts are given, with the best reserved for our Teacher-in-Charge.

At home, you can sense that the preparation for the big day is more frenetic, as househelps are mobilized to clean the backyard, wax the floors and scrub the wooden windows and the pasamanos (window ledge) with isis leaves. Two weeks before Christmas, my Ingkung (grandfather) would give an extra 100 pesos to my Ima for her Christmas marketing. I remember accompanying her to far away San Fernando so she could order special ‘saymadas’ (local pastry) slathered with butter and topped with grated ‘quezo de bola’. This must explain why ensaymadas are my favorite pastries to this day.

Ati Bo, my father’s former yaya and our resident cook would also be preparing the big ‘kawas’ (vats) and ‘kalderas’ (wide cooking pans) for our special noche buena (midnight meal) based on my Ima’s menu, scrubbing the copper ‘tachos’ to bring back their gleam, which she will use for cooking tibuk-tibuk. Banana leaves would be gathered from our backyard garden, cut in size and then smoked to make them supple for wrapping suman and bobotu.

Around this time too, while the adults are absorbed in their holiday chores, I would also be snooping around to see what I would be receiving for Christmas. There were years when we got ‘stateside’ gifts bought from Clark made possible by an American friend--my favorite were the stockings stuffed with mint candies, small toys, crayons and activity books. When that was not possible, my big sister would find something appropriate at Johnny’s Grocery in Balibago or in the school supply stores of Angeles like Josie’s Variety and Estrella’s. I always looked forward to receiving Classic Illustrated comic books (they cost 80 centavos back then) that featured both "stories from the world's greatest writers" and classic fairy tales. I still have a few issues saved from those past Christmases.

Children were also expected to attend religious festivities during the holidays and the ‘pastorellas’ of our church in Mabalacat were always a delight to hear. Latin hymns are sung during the 9-day Christmas masses , and the songs include “Kyrie” (in Greek, actually) , “Gloria”, “Credo”, “Sanctus” and “Agnus Dei”. Though I could not understand a word, the operatic hymns, sung by a full choir and accompanied by violins, accordion and flutes, completely enthralled me, leading me to believe that these musical pieces must have been composed in heaven. Today, the pastorella tradition lives on in Mabalacat and in a few towns like Betis and Sta. Rita.

The final prelude to Christmas happens on Christmas Eve with the holding of the kid-anticipated ‘Maytinis’—the spectacular procession of holy images—patrons of every barangay, accompanied by colorfully lit lanterns or parul. Village choirs singing “Dios te Salve” accompany the faithful as they wend their way through the main streets of the town and back to the church.

As a young boy, I could only see the procession from afar—on the other side of Sapang Balen—as our narrow street was not part of the designated ‘limbun’ route. How I often fretted those nights away! Which is why, when I was asked to judge the Maytinis competition in 2004 (yes, prizes are now being given away for the Best Lantern, Best Carroza, Best Barangay Participation, Best Choir, etc.), I did not think twice and said yes. Through the years, the level of artistry has grown by leaps and bounds, evident in the creatively-designed lanterns and imaginatively-decorated floats; I pray that the depth of devotion has grown too.

Call me killjoy, but the excitement over Christmas drops drastically for me the day after—December 26. Then I start counting 364 days all over again till the next Christmas. For another chance to bring back scenes from one’s childhood and relive honored traditions, the wait is worth it.


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