“I like the past. It’s sweet and familiar. The present is cold and foreign…”
Maria Fyodorovna played by Helen Hayes
written by Anatole Litvak
I don’t live in the past. But when the past was so beautiful — but not necessarily more beautiful than the present — one cannot help but look back with great sentiment and longing. And no other time of the year brings up nostalgic longings more strongly than the Christmas season.
Because Lola Charing wanted her youngest son Macarito — Brother Andrew Benjamin Gonzalez F.S.C., a La Salle brother — present during the Christmas family gathering, she moved the traditional “Noche Buena” gathering of the family in the late 1950s from the midnight of 24 December to dinner on 25 December, Christmas Day itself. So while all Filipino families held their main Christmas “Noche Buena” celebration on the midnight of 24 December, we still proceeded with our main Christmas celebration on the evening of Christmas Day itself…
I knew it was already the first week of the Christmas season because Lola Charing’s elegant dining room [ entirely furnished by Sr. JAO ] would be brimming with boxes of American-style fruit cakes, large “ensaimadas,” “tocino del cielo,” and other traditional Sulipeno / Pampango pastries, all made by the housekeeper and patissier-in-residence Natalia “Talia” Padilla [ whose lasting memory was having taught the Cojuangco-Murphy Sisters — Aurora “Rory” Cojuangco-Lagdameo, Isabel Cojuangco-Suntay, and Mercedes “Ditas” Cojuangco-Teodoro — how to make the traditional Arnedo “sans rival” right in Lola Charing’s kitchen ]. In particular, I remember the generous assortments — one car full — that Lola Charing would send to her great friend Dona Charing Escudero all the way to the Villa Escudero in San Pablo, Laguna. That took place twice a year: before Dona Charing Escudero’s 25 November birthday and again before Christmas, around 08 December. Lola Charing Escudero was a kind lady who always gave generous somethings [ cash ] to the driver and to Benito the majordomo. And if we young Gonzalez grandchildren went along we received even bigger amounts from Lola Charing Escudero, enough to buy some toys at the department store!!!
I knew it was the afternoon of Christmas Day because the delicious scent of roast stuffed turkey emanated from the oven in the main kitchen. I also sensed whiffs of newly-cooked “tocino del cielo”…
All-white, hand-embroidered linens had been draped generously on all the tables. On the round table were piles of silver platters and casseroles, stacks of prewar European porcelain, and cascades of antique crystal stemware.
Lola Charing’s beloved sterling silver flatware monogrammed “RAG” [ Rosario Arnedo-Gonzalez ], with all its various interesting forks and knives for several dozen people, made its appearance on several trays on a corner table. According to Tita Naty [ Natividad Gonzalez; Mrs. Francisco David Palanca ], it had been one of Lolo Bosto’s last gifts to Lola Charing before his assassination in July 1939; she remembered her Mama Charing fleeing during the war carrying little Macarito [ Brother Andrew ] with her right hand and carrying her unwieldy box of silver flatware with her left hand.
Also, Benito “Bito” the majordomo had given us samples of the “egg nog” for the evening. Sometimes the liquor content was strong enough to souse my younger brother Adolfo and sister Rosario to sleep in the living room. I would hyperventilate for a while because of my asthma.
From dear Ate Garing the cook, we kids also enjoyed sample servings of the evening’s cold lobster salad. Yummy…
On Christmas Day, Brother Andrew usually arrived from De La Salle University at around 2:00 p.m.. He would inquire about the food with Ate Garing the cook and look over the preparations with Benito the majordomo. Satisfied that everything was going well, he retired to his bedroom upstairs for a short nap and perhaps a swim, before he personally filled up the De La Salle Brothers Christmas cards that accompanied all his gifts to the family. At 5:00 p.m., he would look for Benito so the Christmas gifts could be brought down to the Christmas tree in the living room. Like Lola Charing, Brother Andrew was traditional with his gift-giving: the ladies usually received French perfume/ eau de toilette and contemporary jewelry from Ramon Villegas’ shop; the gentlemen received French wines and Cuban cigars; the teenagers received the fashionable EDT eaux de toilette and some cash; little girls and boys received good books and some cash. Every member of the household staff received a gift and some cash. And all the household staff of the other family members that were present also received some cash.
In Lola Charing’s lifetime, there was always a shower of coins, in every party and more so during the Christmas party. At a time when even just 25 centavos could buy you something at the convenience store, Lola Charing threw thousands of pesos in coins to the family, household staff, and guests as they shrieked and squealed with delight. Lola Charing’s shower of coins was always something we grandchildren looked forward to at every family gathering.