When I was growing up in Quezon City, you could hear Christmas carols on the radio by early November. Outside our front door would be a big parol.
Our Christmas tree, a pine tree from Baguio, was up and decorated with multi-coloured electric lights by the second week of December. Gaily wrapped presents would show up under the tree the week before Christmas. By this time, little neighbourhood children singing Christmas carols would be ringing our doorbell, sometimes showing up twice in the same evening.
Midnight Mass was awaited with great anticipation, never to be missed. Our Media Noche at home, soon after, was just for immediate family as more sumptuous feasts were to follow in the afternoon in our house and at our relatives’ on the day after. We opened our gifts in the morning. Presents for the children from Santa had miraculously appeared under the tree. The rest of the day was spent welcoming relatives and grazing (the dining table was laden with kakanin and hors d’oeuvres) until dinner time when the lechon with all its accompaniments was brought to the table. The best part was seeing all our relatives and catching up, and doing the same all over again, eating and catching up, the next day at another cousin’s or auntie’s house.
My first Christmas in Toronto was white, everything was covered with snow. Peter brought a small fir tree to my room in a boarding house. His mother had sent him candle holders (and small white wax candles); we attached them to the branches of the tree. On Christmas Eve, he carefully lit each candle with a match. I had never seen real live candles on a Christmas tree before. It was ethereal. Of course, we had a bucket of water close by, and prayed the landlord would not find out.
After our first child arrived, we substituted electric lights for candles. Every year, we would go to a farm and choose our tree. Every year, it got taller as the children grew bigger and,every year, we would say, “This is our best Christmas tree ever”. We now live in a high rise condo and cannot enjoy real trees anymore. But once we have strung the white Christmas lights and hung up all the Christmas decorations that we have collected over the years, we still say, “Wow, this is the best Christmas tree we’ve ever had.”
There are midnight Masses in many churches in Toronto and we used to go “before kids.” In the German manner, we light a candle each Sunday of Advent. We have Christmas calendars for the grandchildren. We have our Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve (what was once a goose is now a huge turkey; the lechon is just a distant memory). Our Latvian daughter-in-law makes her signature mashed potatoes. Now that we have a Swedish son-in-law, the dinners are punctuated with several rounds of a special schnapps, preceded by a rousing drinking song, putting everyone in a very festive mood. Even the little ones raise their glasses of juice in joyful cheer. As dessert comes to a finish, the children search the sky for any sign of reindeer. Someone turns on the TV to see if there’s news about Santa’s whereabouts. Christmas carols fill the air and the children start singing. The dining table is cleared, the kitchen hums with cleaning up, and we all start to relax when suddenly, the doorbell rings. Somebody answers it and, lo and behold, Santa is standing there, a heavy sack on his shoulders and a big smile on his face. The children jump up and down and run to meet him and lead him inside. They sit on his lap, he talks to them, and hands them their presents. The younger ones are a little shy, maybe even scared. The older boy exclaims , “Santa, your watch is the same as Opa’s!”
Last year, we spent Christmas in a tiny island resort in the Maldives. After dinner, everyone gathered at the beach and listened to Christmas carols sung by a choir of resort employees. The Maldivians are Muslim but they sang,with great reverence, Joy to the World, O Come All Ye Faithful and other traditional Christian hymns. It was very touching. Not too long after, a very glittery, and very noisy, motorboat came close to shore. There was jolly old Santa, quite tanned, with a big sack on his shoulder. With much fanfare, and many Ho-Ho-Hos, he waded ashore to the cheers of children and adults alike.
A few years ago, we were in an old fishing town on the west coast of Sweden for the Yuletide season (they say “God Jul” for “Merry Christmas”). Here, it was “Tomte”(a gnome) who brought gifts, wearing not a bright red suit but a modest brown garb.At midnight, as we walked to the austere Lutheran church on a hill, tall white candles glowed softly in the windows of houses along the way. Welcoming lamps and big candles shone brightly beside their doors, age-old safe havens in the long, dark, extremely cold Scandinavian winter nights. Another tradition is the St. Lucia celebration, a procession of little girls dressed in white with a red sash, a crown of candles on their heads (electric for the younger ones, real candles for the older ones), walking solemnly as they sang “Santa Lucia.”
This year, our children and grandchildren will be home again, in Toronto (from Hong Kong, Vancouver and Stockholm) - and that is always the best Christmas gift of all. In addition, my brother and his wife, and a sister and her husband from Virginia who have no children of their own will join us; it will be almost like a Filipino Christmas.There will be 19 of us -needless to say, I am having our turkey dinner catered. When our grandchildren are a little older, we will go to the Philippines for Christmas. By then, they will only be too thrilled to be overwhelmed by the hundreds of relatives and friends (as my only-child husband experienced on his first visit to Manila) with whom we will be spending our holidays.
How we celebrate Christmas has evolved through the years. We have also experienced it in culturally diverse ways. But, always, as everywhere, we celebrate Christmas in the spirit of giving and sharing, and family .Our Simbang Gabi is now a noon mass on Christmas Day and never fails to remind us that it all began with an act of selflessness and generosity in Bethlehem. Let’s continue to spread this good will!