Misty Eyes at Christmas
By Rudy Arizala
In the Philippines, when the early mornings become colder and the various radio stations start playing Christmas carols and music, it means that the month of December has arrived.
The term December is taken from the Latin word “decem” which means ten, the tenth month in the Roman calendar but the 12th month in the Gregorian calendar.
Aside from Christmas, another religious holiday is celebrated during the month — the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8. The 8th of December is also historically significant. On this day in 1941, various cities in the Philippines — Manila, Davao, Baguio and Aparri — were bombed by Japanese warplanes. The day before (December 7, 1941), the Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, which prompted the United States to declare war against Japan and the other Axis powers Germany and Italy.
A few days before Christmas, Japanese planes dropped bombs on Infanta’s radio station and municipal building. However, the bombs missed their targets. One bomb landed near the house of Tata Eteng Evardome (father of “Umpe” Evardome). The other bomb hit the yard of Nana Pining Telan while the third bomb hit a yard near the Sapa River.
The people of Infanta evacuated to the barrios after the bombings, fearing of Japanese landings. But the Japanese forces did not land at Infanta. On Dec. 22, Japanese forces attacked the nearby town south of Infanta, Mauban, Quezon. On Dec. 24 they landed at Mauban. After a fierce battle between the Japanese Imperial Forces and the combined Philippine Army-USAFFE forces at Mauban-Atimonan-Siain sector, the Japanese Forces marched towards Manila. On Dec. 27, Manila was declared an “Open City” to save it from further destruction. Japanese forces entered Manila on Jan. 2, 1942.
While these historical events are important, the most remembered date in Infanta is Christmas. During my childhood, mother would start buying live chicken a month before Christmas and put them inside a tangkal, a long bamboo cage for fattening. Nanay (Mother) would request someone to fatten a paiwi (young pig) to be butchered at Christmas. She would store up on eggs for cakes, cookies and kinakaw. In addition, Nanay would contract somebody to make pasingaw, a sticky rice cake that the American Carmelites called “Filipino bubble gum.”
At noche buena (Holy Night) we heard the midnight Mass, then the whole family gathered together at home to partake of native delicacies — pansit, lechon, fried chicken, ham, apples, grapes, chestnuts, queso de bola and more. All houses were decorated with star-shaped lanterns hanging on windows with multi-colored lights. Children, youngsters and adults exploded firecrackers.
On Christmas day (Dec. 25), our dining table was laden with various kinds of food —embutido, morcon, meat loaf, lechon, tamales, native cakes, cookies, kinakaw, cheese, ham and a variety of fruits — oranges, grapes, apples and chestnuts. Those who came to the house were offered food or something to drink. At the corner of the living room was an agoo (pine) Christmas tree.
On that day, we visited our relatives, aunts and uncles, ninongs and ninangs (godfathers and godmothers) to greet them a Merry Christmas and kiss their hands (mano po). Likewise, all the godsons and goddaughters of Nanay and Tatay (Father) would visit them to kiss their hands saying, “Mano po Ninong, mano po Ninang.” Nanay and Tatay would give them money and something to eat and drink after the mano po ritual.
Of course children preferred coins or paper bills instead of the food and drinks offered them. Their standard reply was “Salamat po, mayroon din po sa amin” (Thank you, Ma’am, we also have the same food at home), or they would say, “Busog pa po kami” (We have just eaten).
Relatives and friends visited each other while the young men and women held parties or went on picnics either at the beach or the banks of Agus River, or simply under the coconut trees.
Rizal, in his novel El Filibusterismo (Reign of Greed) narrated that on Christmas day, children were waken up early, washed and dressed up in their fine or new clothes and taken to church for the High Mass. “Afterwards,” continued Rizal, “they are taken from house to house to visit relatives and greet them, as is the custom, by kissing hands…the relatives give them coins.” Sometimes, their “stomach ache from a surfeit of sweets and biscuits in the house of the more generous relatives.”
How about the grown-ups? Rizal said: “The grown-ups who live by themselves have a share of their own in the holiday. They visit their parents and their uncles and aunts, bend a knee and wish them a Happy Christmas; their presents are a sweet, a fruit, or glass of water or some trinket.” (El Filibusterismo by Jose Rizal as translated by Leon Ma. Guerrero to English for contemporary reader, Longman 1965, Chapter 8, “Happy Christmas,” pp. 57-58).
Aside from hearing Mass, visits to relatives and godparents, food, sweets and coins, we associate Christmas with the Christmas tree and Santa Claus. We even imitate the American Christmas tree we see on Christmas cards by making it appear that snow — actually shreds of white cotton –– rested on its branches. Our lighted lantern is not the Star of Bethlehem but a five-pointed star made of bamboo strips and papel de japon (rice paper).
After Christmas day, we celebrated the feast of the “Three Kings” or magi who, guided by a bright star, found the place where Jesus was born and offered gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The story of the “Three Kings” undoubtedly inspired the gift giving or exchange of presents we have today on Christmas.
Misa de Gallo
Christmas day is preceded by a nine-day misa de gallo (the hour when the cocks crow at dawn). We call it aguinaldo in Infanta. What is the origin of holding mass at dawn when it is still dark?
During the 16th century, Pope Sixtus V decreed that in the Philippines, predawn Masses would be held starting the 16th of December in keeping with the nine-day festivals of Filipinos in celebrating special occasions. It was also intended to give Filipino farmers a chance to go to Mass before starting work in their farm. Filipinos, as a matter of custom and due to the weather, start the day early — hours before sunrise.
Thus, Infantahins, like me do not associate the month of December with the 10th or 12th month of the year, or the period when Japanese planes dropped bombs at Infanta. Rather, the people of Infanta, like Filipinos elsewhere in the Philippines, start celebrating Christmas from Dec. 16 to Dec. 25. This continues for 12 days more from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6, the feast of the “Three Kings.” Like other Spanish-speaking countries, the Philippines enjoy a very long celebration of Christmas.
Expatriate Filipinos, wherever they may be, remember their own respective “Infanta” during Christmas and cannot help but feel nostalgic, their eyes becoming moist and misty. As I sit down at noche buena before a table laden with food and drinks, how could I explain to my children, who grew up or were born in a foreign land with strange customs, why their “Dad” or “Papa” has misty eyes?
I have no heart to tell them that I miss Infanta’s Christmas. They will not understand because through no fault of their own, they were born or grew up in another clime and time. But the significance of Christmas is the same — peace, goodwill and love.