Author Topic: Remembrances of Christmases past  (Read 5488 times)

Joe Carillo

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Remembrances of Christmases past
« on: December 25, 2009, 01:34:21 AM »
In the farming village where I grew up, Christmas was essentially a play of light and singing voices. I lived in a sparse neighborhood that, having no electricity in those days, regularly disappeared after sundown among the thick clusters of trees and shrubs. There would only be small patches of light from kerosene gas lamps or wick lamps in the invisible houses. But when December came, practically all of the village households would hang a parol and I always volunteered to mount a candle inside ours. I would excitedly light it and a faint sheen of red, orange, yellow, blue, or green would break through the crepe paper or cellophane. In less than an hour the candle would consume itself and I would be too exhausted to put up and light a new one. Everyone else would be asleep by then, and the night would be so calm and silent I could hear it pounding on my eardrums.


On Christmas Eve I often stayed awake long past midnight. Our house would be totally dark because our kerosene gas lamp would have sputtered out hours earlier, all of its fuel used up. Only a small wick lamp in our kitchen would stay lit for the rest of the night. At that hour I would feel strangely grateful that there were thousands of stars in the sky. For some reason, I couldn’t remember a single Christmas Eve in those days when there was a full moon or at least substantial moonlight. What I remember were skies that were almost always cloudless, with stars that pulsated and seemed to shiver and swirl and dance in the blackness. I often would imagine that one of them was the Star of Bethlehem. It was in those moments that I felt I got nearest to feeling the sense of the divine, far more profoundly than when praying inside a high-ceilinged church or listening to Christmas songs sung with grace and sensitivity.

What made the season even more magical for me in those days were the Christmas carols. I would feel real goodwill even for the gaggle of children from the neighborhood who would sing Christmas songs in falsetto, banging oval sardine tin cans in accompaniment. But my anticipation was keenest for the caroling groups of the schoolteachers, religious groups, and glee clubs. In those days they would preannounce their coming with elaborate calling cards. At night they would come in formal dress decked with colorful capes and sashes, assembling in front of our house as if in a stage tableau, their faces illumined by the carbide glow of their huge multicolored parols. They would sing Christmas songs beautifully, and at parting time they would invariably oblige us with one or two songs of our choice even if they couldn’t sing them as well, their voices sometimes croaking from exhaustion. After partaking of our finger foods and ginger ale, they would leave for other houses. In bed I would listen to their voices getting fainter and fainter until I could no longer hear them.

All of these images and sounds of my countryside Christmases are just fading memories now. In their place are Christmases that assail the senses with hard-cased lanterns garishly lit by high-wattage lamps, synthetic Christmas trees that need to be assembled from trunk to twig, and young carolers that sing with ever diminishing verve and sincerity from year to year. The primitive magic of Christmas that I had always felt in my youth is gone. Against my better judgment, I have to suspend my disbelief to imagine that at least the spirit of Christmas is still alive—for my children’s sake, and for the sake of the child in me and in you as well.

Merry Christmas!

(This is a condensation of an essay that I wrote for my column in The Manila Times for its December 26, 2002 issue. On Christmas Day today, I am posting it in the Forum to help summon into my consciousness the Christmas spirit that somehow has always lain in deep hibernation inside me since I was a child.)
« Last Edit: December 25, 2020, 01:31:54 AM by Joe Carillo »


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Re: Remembrances of Christmases past
« Reply #1 on: December 25, 2009, 10:41:23 AM »
Christmas trees are supposed to be the usual conifer or cypress that would look like the ones we see on Christmas cards when the West cuts its tree tops close to Christmas Eve. Where I grew up, it had a different view of what Christmas is like.

Fresh from those toddler days in Manila where all I knew about Christmas was receiving gifts from uncles and aunties, candy canes, dolls in various sizes, and breaking your old piggy bank to be replaced by a new one, in the province I began to see the deeper meaning of this season. There were no parades like the ones organized by Mayor Bagatsing; it was an occasion where my grandfather was a big figure in the neighborhood, telling others to do this, prepare this and that. But, he never let anyone else do the Christmas tree trimmings but him. His unique choice of Christmas tree, the one glittering with Sampaloc fruits that had ripened in their boughs to look silvery...was the most gorgeous of the yuletide trees in the barrio. There were some other fresh ornaments I could see, but they were naturally grown from his farm and made beautiful with the marvelously tied knots of brown hay and Ipil-ipil garlands. I was just staring at the whole giant tree with awe, and began to think of wonders only my mind could dream. At last, he got down from the stool he was standing in, and smiled at me to say something...

I said, "Who will put the star on top?". He made a great sigh, and told me to just wait for my father. I replied that it would be a long wait, for father always came home only on the eve of a special occasion. He would bring home presents and other souvenirs to the province, everything modern and city-made, even the candy canes from his American master. Then, I would have another bag of brightly colored girl's wear, all lovely gifts even my parents could not buy with their meager monthly wages.

"Then we wait", he said. He motioned to me to put the paper garlands we made at our art subject. I have drawn various images on the broad spaces and rings, and was proud to show off my masterpieces of art. He was glad to see the brightness on my face, as he assisted me in trimming the rest of the spaces. "Would you tell your classmates?", he asked.

My mood changed in an instant. I even trembled hearing the word "classmates". Moving from Manila to the province at six years old and unable to speak the local dialect Ilocano, my daily social life was limited to just chatting with neighbors and cousins. Classmates always teased me as a "manila girl" or "tagala". And I never played with them at recess time. I was always tired chasing the boys with paper balls I prepared especially to hit them when they teased me, and retorting back at them saying "goats". Some girls were always envious as I always had nice clothes, and they would show faces of scorn when our teachers tap my shoulders. I always had to be surrounded by cousins as we walked home, to safeguard me from others' scorn.

It's almost five o"clock, and we were ready to burn the small candles we saved from the can of home-made floor wax, to check their effect on the Christmas tree. My grandpa told me that he could hear some whispers near the bushes, and giggles near our fence. He said, that some had been there for hours watching us, and now the faint sounds of giggles was getting louder. My attention was now of lighting the candles standing on the big branches of our wonder tree.

The dusk signalled it's time to start the rehearsal, we had to see how beautiful our work of art was. There, as I lit each little candle on each branch, and the images on the background grew brighter; glows and glitters mixed with smiling faces, and the sight of angelic images holding some flowers, coming towards us to hang trimmings on our tree. My classmates! I tried to hold back tears, wished to run, but my legs were motionless. It's too late. Some girls had held my hand and led me to our other classmates. They too had some other ornaments to hang. Instantly, the boys who used to tease me turned like real angels. We moved slowly together closer to the tree, as we threw shy smiles at each other. We sang songs our teachers taught us in school. This time, we were singing all in a language we could understand. We sang our favorite hymns: O Come all Ye Haithful. Joy to the World the Lord has Come!