I’m not sure if it’s just me, but the Christmases of recent years just feel different… WHERE IS THE SPIRIT??? I’m not sure if it’s just my “advancing” age, along with all the various responsibilities, persistent worries, and endless problems that make me feel this way. All I’m sure is that Christmas was much more wondrous, joyous, and fun when I was a child in the early 1970s, considering that those were not even wonderful years — rather dark, in fact — in our country’s history.
When I was a child, there was the rustle of the elders and the household staff in the dark of night — although the roosters were already crowing — as they dressed to attend the 4:00 a.m. “Misa de Gallo” at the parish church. We children were not really taken along since we would just be irritable and sleep throughout the mass. After the mass ended at 5:00 a.m., there was no going back to sleep as the day had begun. Breakfast was prepared and afterwards everybody set out with their tasks for the day.
During the times I was taken along to the “Misa de Gallo,” I was fascinated with the “belen” [ Christmas creche ] near the altar and the occasional crepe paper “parol” [ "farol" / lantern ] hanging nearby. The figures of the “belen” were big although not lifesize, and there were animals and real hay [ absolutely thrilling for a child ]! There was an ox, a donkey, a camel, goats, and several sheep. After the mass, there was a long line to kiss the image of the cute Baby Jesus in the “belen,” and Little Me, blissfully unaware of bacteria and viruses and infections, gave Baby Jesus’ stomach a big smack of the lips. In those days, there was no fear — indeed no knowledge — of H1N1 or bird flu; there was only good ol’ TB tuberculosis, which was chicken feed by Philippine standards, and which everyone had been exposed to one way or the other!
During the nine days of the “Misa de Gallo,” the patio of the parish church turned into a veritable market with vendors selling all sorts of things. Of course, Little Me and my younger brother and sister always wanted the multicolored sweet popcorn .10 centavos per pack [ which my mother thought was not clean enough and refused to buy for us ] and the color-splashed balloons .25 centavos each. The elders went for the “bibingka,” the “puto bumbong,” and the “suman” rice cakes, although they always complained that the ones made at home were better. All the sights, sounds, and smells during those chilly December mornings became the Christmas memories I have carried with me all my life.
Back in Lola Charing’s house, the Tampingco-style round dining table, the magnificent bone-inlaid sideboard, the Ortoll nests of tables, the Puyat library table, the cabinets, and most of the antique tables around were teeming with white boxes upon boxes of large “ensaimadas,” “tocino del cielo,” fruit cake,” “food for the gods,” and other Old Sulipan goodies on top of cans and trays with water [ to prevent the ants climbing up ] which Ate Talia Padilla [ daughter of the legendary Juan Padilla, chef of the 1898 Malolos Congress ], Lola’s “mayordoma” and resident patissier, had been churning out by the hundreds the last few days to be sent to Lola Charing’s relatives and friends around the city — various Gonzalezes and Arnedos; various Lopezes, Cojuangcos, Madrigals, et. al.. We grandkiddies only had to ask Ate Talia for any of those sugary goodies in the kitchen as she had lots of them there. Thus the Gonzalez diabetics of the future were bred.
Back in those days when I did not have to think of the employees’ Christmas bonuses, 13th month salaries, personal cash gifts, Christmas gifts to VIPs all the way to friends’ pet dogs, yearend debt settlements, etc., etc.. All I had to think of was what new toy I wished for Christmas from “Santa Claus,” who never showed up in person.
I thnk my first “loss of innocence” was when I was told at the age of seven, I forget by whom, that Santa Claus didn’t exist, that he was just some fairy tale. You see, we children, courtesy of our “yayas” from the provinces, lived in an insulated, magical world where everything existed: angels, demons, vampires, “aswang,” “manananggal,” “kapre,” “tikbalang,” “duwende,” “asong pascual” [ in Pampanga ], and Godknowswhatelse, etc..