Christmas and the Star of the Magi
By Rudy A. Arizala
Our national hero Dr. Jose P. Rizal in his novel “Noli Me Tangere” (Social Cancer) wrote:
“It was Christmas Eve and yet the town was wrapped in gloom. Not a paper lantern hung from the windows nor did a single sound in the houses indicate the rejoicing of other years.”
And whenever I see a star paper lantern on Christmas, I remember Christmas of Yesteryears and the Star of the Magi which shone on them more than two thousand years ago.
How Christmas is Celebrated.
In the Philippines, when the early mornings become colder and the various radio and TV 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.
The most remembered date during the month of December in my hometown of 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 under the care of somebody) to be butchered at Christmas. She would store or collect eggs for cakes, cookies and “kinakaw”. In addition, Nanay would contract somebody to make “pasingaw”, a sticky rice cake that the early American Carmelites fathers in Infanta called it the “Filipino bubble gum.”
At noche buena (Christmas Eve) 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 “agoho” (pine tree) Christmas tree.
On that day, we visit 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).
And according to Rizal, in his letter to her mother dated 05 January 1893, hereunder is how he spent his Christmas Eve while already exiled in Dapitan: “ . . .I have not spent too bad a Christmas or New Year’s Eve here; no doubt I could havve had a better time under other circumstances, but in those in which I find myself I could not have wanted more. . . Three Spaniards came from a neighboring town and together with the local commander,another local Spaniard, and a Frenchman, we had a gay Christmas Eve dinner. We went to hear the midnight mass; for you must know that I hear Mass every Sunday.” (Guerrero, Ibid., p.342).
Aside from hearing Mass, visits to relatives and godparents, food, sweets and coins, we associate Christmas with the Christmas tree, star lantern 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” (thin 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.
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.
Significance of Christmas.
Expatriate Filipinos, wherever they may be, remember their own respective “Infanta” during Christmas and cannot help but feel nostalgic. As I sit down at noche buena before a table laden with food and drinks, how could I explain to my children and grandchild, who grew up or were born in a foreign land with different customs, why their “Dad” or “grandpa” has melancholy eyes?
I have no heart to tell them that I miss Infanta’s Christmas of yesteryears. They will not understand because through no fault of their own, they were born or breed in another clime and time. But the significance of Christmas is the same — the birth of a Child of peace, love, goodwill and and the appearance of a bright star.
For according to the Holy book, three Magi or Wise men from the East came looking for a newly-born child and told king Herod: “We saw His star rise in the East and come to honor Him.” When they continued their journey, “the star reappeared and went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the Child was in swaddling clothes, with Mary His mother.”
Even today, the Christmas star puzzles scientists. “Was it a supernova or a comet?” asked Dr. Peter Andrews of University of Cambridge and Robert Massey of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. A “stationary point of Jupiter,” maybe?
In 5 B.C., the year many scholars believe Jesus was born, during a combination of a bright nova and a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, in the constellation of Pisces, was seen, some accounts say. “Ancient Chinese astronomers recorded this as an unusually bright star that appeared in the eastern sky for 70 days. It was a rare sight.”
“None of possible astronomical explanation has overwhelming evidence that it should be preferred to others,” Andrews and Massey conclude. But the nova, comet or variable star explanation “appears more likely.”
The astronomers’ debate continues. While a bright star continues to be associated with the birth of the Prince of Peace, the king of all kings.