By Greg B. Macabenta
My wife and I would have wanted to spend this Christmas in the Philippines, but unfortunate circumstances prevented a trip. First of all, there is COVID-19 and the quarantine protocol being strictly enforced by the government. Secondly, US citizens now need a visa to enter the Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte’s tit-for-tat response to the visa that Pinoys need to enter the US. And thirdly, my former company driver, when I was CEO of a Manila ad agency, just died and is lying in state at our house in Paranaque.
Two years ago, we spent Christmas in the Philippines for the first time in 32 years. That trip brought back fond memories that I would like to share with you.
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“Singko lang po, singko lang po,
Singko lang po ang ibigay niyo
Ayos na ang buto-buto!”
“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” never had such a less literal translation. Funny how I caught myself singing it.
It was 1986. Our first Christmas in America. I was imagining our two youngest kids, Jojo and Jinky, and their playmates scurrying around the neighborhood in Paranaque, knocking on doors like Halloween trick-or-treaters, holding homeowners hostage with their repertoire of carols until they were paid a ransom of coins and crumpled pesos.
My wife, four children and I were spending the yuletide season slushing through the snow or shivering by the fireplace, bundled in layers of clothing, our fingers stiff and frozen, our ears and noses threatening to fall off from the cold. If anybody had told us how fun it was to ride in a one-horse open sleigh, we would have disagreed.
We had a house in a little town on the Eastern shore of the Chesapeake, perhaps not much bigger than Bethlehem. And if a place could have inspired the song, “Silent Night,” Cambridge, Maryland would surely have done so.
Enduring the cold winter nights, huddled by an open fire, we wondered when Jack Frost would stop knocking at our door. And as we listened to the carols being sung by television choirs, we all pined for the Pasko that we had known all our lives back home.
Home. There we were in our own snow-covered cottage, actually experiencing the white Christmas we had dreamed and sang about, and we still thought of the house in Paranaque as home.
Lest I be misunderstood, Christmas in America has alway been a joyful experience for our family, having been fortunate to be always together. But even to this day, Pasko is the time of year when we miss the Philippines most.
Ah, the flood of nostalgia. The old hometown, the old neighborhood, the relatives and friends. The sights, the sounds, the fragrances, the things we did as the months began to end with “Ber.”
“Ber” – that was the signal that the yuletide season was upon us. Septem-Ber was when the first carols could be heard on radio. Then would follow Octo-Ber and the retail stores began to hang holiday displays. Novem-Ber was when the first installment of the Christmas bonus or the thirteenth month pay was given. Time for gift shopping before prices went up. And then came Decem-Ber when the count-down to Araw ng Pasko began in earnest.
The airwaves would reverberate with carols that served up a confusion of sounds and images, of red-nosed reindeers and carabao sleds, of Pastores de Belen and Santa Claus and of “Ang Pasko ay Sumapit” and “The Twelve Days of Christmaas.”
But for the children, the cacophony invariably blended into one warm package called Happiness Even adults, despite having to hustle for extra cash for gifts and the festive table, always managed to survive the season with a smile.
How can we ever forget Pasko?
Brightly-colored parols hanging at every window, bidding welcome to men of goodwill. Ersatz fir trees covered with ersatz snow, laden with shiny balls and bells, little angels and Santa Claus cut-outs and the fold-out cardboard Belen at the base.
The Misa de Gallo commencing on December 16. A great way to cleanse one’s soul for Advent and a perfect opportunity for flirtation and young love.
Then on Christmas Eve, the Midnight Mass. And the Media Noche. Puto bumbong, suman and bibingka. Queso de Bola and Lechon de Leche.
And the next morning, the stream of kumares and kumpares with children in tow, all reminding you that you were ninong and ninang at that baptism so many unremembered years ago, and gently adding that you still owed your inaanak the aginaldo for Christmases past.
Throughout the season community choral groups serenading for funds. Professional carolers canvassing neighborhoods like appliance sales teams. And children scampering from house to house, wielding makeshift instruments and screaming at the top of their lungs.
And the office Christmas parties. What’s Pasko without them? The one day in the year when the Scrooges showered their benevolence on the Crachits.
I remember one office party where I replaced the lyrics of Levi Celerio’s classic ”Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit” with lines of my own.
“Ang Pasko ay dumako, tayo ay mangagsitago
Pagka’t ang ating bonus, kulang pa sa mga gastos.”
The Chairman of the Board didn’t think that was funny, especially coming from his CEO.
But the happiest gatherings of all were the family reunions. A time to remember lolas and lolos, aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces. To meet new in-laws and prospective ones. To see the grandchildren and some great grandkids. To be reminded how ancient you had become.
A time for kissing hands and bussing cheeks. For loud laughter and teasing and pinching. And, yes, a time for profligate consumption of food and drink, including that bottle of “stateside” so carefully kept for such a special occasion.
But my reverie must end here.
Christmas Day was always celebrated at the house of an elder brother, Mano Danding. Sadly, he passed away shortly after our visit to the Philippines two Christmases ago.
We also observed the Feast of the Three Kings at the house of another elder brother, Mano Fredo. And New Year was always greeted at the house of an elder sister, Mana Adoracion, and her husband, Mano Kakoy. They, too, have passed away.
December 24 was always celebrated at our house, along with our wedding anniversary. Gigi and I were married on the day before Pasko.
But, even that would not have been possible, even if we had gone home this Christmas, because my former driver is lying in state at the old house in Paranaque.
However, God willing, we may live to celebrate more Christmases to come. I would love to teach our US-born grandchildren to sing the Pinoy version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”:
“Singko lang po, singko lang po.
Singko lang po ang ibigay niyo.
Ayos na ang buto-buto.”