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Childhood Memories of Christmas

I still remember with great fondness and nostalgia celebrating Christmas in the Philippines as a child in the late ‘50s.

Our family Christmas tree was not real; it was an artificial pine tree. But my eyes would glow with amazement when my mother would decorate it with ornaments used the previous year. There were no twinkling lights wrapped around the tree because back then there was no electricity in my hometown. Our main source of light was Petromax, a kerosene lamp lit by my father every evening to lighten up the entire house.

Underneath the tree was a small replica of the Nativity or the Belen, made of colored cardboards, but complete with art objects representing the birth of the baby Jesus. Also called a manger, the nativity scene included the Holy Family, the angels, a few shepherds, the Magi, and some animals I could not recognize, which I later learned to be donkeys and oxen.

In spite of the manger’s special place under the tree, which was always at the center, I really never understood what the religious significance of the manger was. And I never asked my parents. I was more interested in the Christmas presents also laid underneath the trees, in close proximity to the nativity scene.

I don’t remember having a Christmas wish list, but getting just one Christmas present was enough to look forward to the next Christmas season.

A group of us kids, mostly neighborhood friends, would go caroling from house to house. What made our caroling unique was the spontaneity of it all. If two or three of my friends wanted to carol, off we went. We never planned to carol and we never gave prior notice.

We also never practiced our songs, but we sang with such intense verve and gusto. Our favorite songs were Jingle Bells and Sa May Bahay Ang Aming Bati (Greetings to the Home Owners).

Some generous neighbors would spare us a few coins, while others would tell us to go home – the latter becoming the target of our ridicule for being stingy. At the end of the night, we equally divided our “collection” among ourselves.

One hour before the clock struck at twelve midnight on Christmas Eve, either my father or my mother would wake me up to go to church for the traditional midnight Mass.

My father had stopped going to Mass. He once told me that he used to hear Mass a lot when he was a kid. In fact, he used to serve Mass. This gave me the impression that in his mind he had probably reached his quota, making him exempt from going to Mass even on Christmas.

My father would stay home with my younger brother who was too young to come along. I have no recollection of my older brother, who was six years older than me, because he had his own set of friends and activities.

On the way to church, I would walk with my mother, holding her hand. Back then there were few “calesas” (horse-drawn carriages) in our town during the day but none at night. Thus, everybody walked.

What made the 20-minute walk specially thrilling was the sight of so many familiar faces – relatives, friends, classmates, acquaintances, and neighbors – all on their way to hear Mass. It was like a social encounter of sorts. For many of the teenagers, it was a good opportunity to have a glimpse of their respective crushes.

Inside the church, I would quietly sit beside my mother and observe pious-looking women pray the rosary as the priest celebrated Mass in Latin, with his back toward the congregation. The women must have thought it more important to pray the rosary rather than devotedly follow the priest in a language they never understood.

During the homily, the men standing at the back of the church would go out to smoke and chat. They must have thought that the homily – inappropriately called sermon in those days – was not part of the Mass. God’s patience must have been tested by their behavior.

What I eagerly waited for during the midnight Mass was when a big lantern, hanging several feet from the ceiling at the back of the church, was pulled toward the altar just before the Consecration. Everybody looked up to watch the lighted lantern. It was a sight to behold. One could surmise that it was a way for the church to artistically show the Body of Christ being illuminated by a big lantern up above just like the way it is written in the Bible.

Most men were obviously absent during Holy Communion. But at the end of the Mass they would approach the altar to kiss a replica of the infant Jesus. The priest patiently held the replica as he waited for all the faithful to kiss it as a symbol of their respect for the newly born Jesus. Whatever it was, I liked the scent that the priest used to make the replica of the baby Jesus smell good.

After the Mass, my mother and I would go straight home for the much awaited Noche Buena (literally means “good night,” but in the Philippines it means the meal eaten after hearing the Midnight Mass to welcome Christmas day).

The sight of queso de bola, apples, sometimes grapes, hot chocolate, and chestnuts on the table would literally wake me up. I never bothered asking my parents where they got these once-in-a-year delicacies. I was more into eating rather than asking. After all, it was Christmas.

The lavish feast was followed by the opening of gifts. The gifts were often not expensive: a set of handkerchiefs, a box of crayons, or a toy of some kind. But I cherished them just the same. I learned at a very young age that money couldn’t buy happiness.

On Christmas day, the first thing I would do was to look over the Christmas stocking I hung the previous night on the tree. Funny, but my stocking was a real shoe sock and not the current colorful Christmas stockings as people know it today. I never wavered in my belief that the gifts in the stocking came from Santa Claus, who paid a visit to our house overnight.

I would also spend the entire Christmas day on the lookout for my godparents who often would give me cash that I kept for myself to buy a nice treat during recess in school.

Our house was often visited by “pastoras” – a group of young girls from nearby towns who relived the birth of Christ and the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary through songs and dances – on Christmas day. They performed in one’s front yard and it was customary to donate a few bucks. I loved the “pastoras” not for any religious reason, but because I found the dancers simply beautiful, especially with their make-up. My early crushes as a young boy were members of the “pastoras.”

These strings of my early childhood Christmas recollections have made me realize that Christmas is about giving and receiving, bringing happiness to others.

When I am at times lost in the hustle and bustle of everyday life these days, I reminisce about my early Christmas as a child, and I discover the true meaning of Christmas – that of giving love, that of being with family.


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