by Nelia Dingcong Bernabe
December 1, 2012
Around here we often say it’s not Christmas until there’s snow on the ground. Year after year, we look forward to the white fluffy stuff hoping to be mesmerized by its appearance as we look out the window the following morning. Nothing beats the feeling of watching snowflakes fall, knowing that a white Christmas is inevitable. It’s simply magical!
And nothing says magic this time of the year than allowing us to be transported effortlessly to a place that tugs at the heartstrings. A place where we can recapture the memories of our childhood that revolves around the merriest of seasons. Our hearts call out to the heartwarming traditions of the many Christmases spent in the islands. We wish, we hope, and we dream. It’s the one place that we would rather be right now. It is where home was for many of us once upon a time.
We hear the laments of our family and friends at the onset of the “ber” month, September, and we brace ourselves for the longing will get worse when December comes. Listen and you will hear the heart whisper.
“Hay naku, sarap sana mag Christmas sa Pilipinas!” (It’ll be nice to spend Christmas in the Philippines!), we hear family members say. Or a friend pensively says in my native Ilonggo, “Baw nami tani puli ba!” (It’ll be nice to go home!).
For a lot of Filipinos in America, the burning dream has always been to spend Christmas back home so traditions can be relived and precious time can be spent with loved ones. Although the holiday trappings in the islands have mirrored the frivolity of the western world in such a remarkable way, a lot of things have remained the same. For a lot of us staying put, we can’t help but reminisce.
As soon as September 1 hits the islands, Christmas carols permeate the air and there’s a visual explosion of Christmas decorations everywhere that overloads the senses in quite a sentimental way. The shopping malls are bedecked with glitter and gold, tinsel and bows, curly strings and wreaths, but it is the “parol” or star-shaped Christmas lantern that takes center stage all across the archipelago.
My own memory of the many Christmases spent in the islands are jogged by recollections that include being part of a choir that sang at Midnight Mass, enjoying the Christmas carolers, sharing with family and friends a well-prepared Noche Buena dotted with your typical Filipino mainstays: lechon (roast pig), hamon (ham), Queso de Bola (Edam cheese shaped like a ball and coated with red paraffin wax), pancit or spaghetti or both, and completing the scrumptious fare with rice cakes and other popular desserts.
Beyond the festive atmosphere and the importance we place on gifts and gift giving, Filipinos recognize the true meaning of the holiday season and exalt the birth of Christ through traditions like Simbang Gabi (pre-dawn Mass) and the prevalence of the creche or nativity scene in homes and public places.
December in the islands is synonymous to cooler than normal temperature. I remember the painstaking effort we doled out just to choose the right outfit for Simbang Gabi. Venturing outside the home meant braving the cold temps which is of course relative to the island’s definition of cold. For me the unseasonable coolness added to the lure that made attending the early morning Mass so memorable.
Whether you’ve lived in America a year or 20-some years, it’s so tempting to succumb to the urge of flying off to the islands just so you can have the Christmas from your childhood that’s steeped with so many great memories just one more time.
After over two decades, I am not sure my longing for a white Christmas hasn’t ebbed. I know that I am beginning to immensely miss being able to leave the house without the layers of clothing and being able to go to midnight Mass and come home and have Noche Buena with family and friends. But year after year, you ward off the melancholy feeling by acknowledging that life here in America, no matter the challenges, is filled with so many blessings.
The pangs of homesickness hit you the hardest around this time of the year. It becomes doubly hard if you have family back home like me. I’m not sure if it gets easier through time but I’ve learned to cope by embracing the American definition of the holiday season, which has become a wonderful and welcome distraction.
But true to the Filipino form and spirit – resilient, steadfast, and accepting, I’ve learned to meld the American way of celebrating the holiday with what I can remember from my many Christmases in the islands.
Through time you learn to carve out your own traditions and instill them in your own family. You adapt to variations like attending the Americanized version of Simbang Gabi which is usually at 6 or 7 p.m. instead of 3 or 4 a.m. for nine consecutive days. You’re accepting of the idea that Christmas may be looked upon by some people as exclusionary so wishing them Merry Christmas may be misconstrued as off-putting. Instead you learn to say Happy Holidays so not to upset the apple cart.
Personally a fused Christmas celebration clearly speaks highly of where you are in your life at the moment. But if you’d rather put up an all-Filipino tree (which from what I can see is leaning more to the American version) and decorate your entire house with parols and other mementoes from your childhood, go ahead. It’s okay, too, to stack up on Santa, his reindeers, and Christmas Nutcrackers, and turn your home into tinsel-town. And who’s to say you can’t have both?
In spite of that great longing to be thousands of miles away in this season of love and good cheers, I honor the holiday traditions of my childhood by recognizing the true essence of this season and that is to reflect on the meaning of the birth of Christ. The religious aspect may get lost in the material and retail translation this time of the year but there’s a lot to be said as to why churches are packed and overflowing during Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Masses.
I guess it boils down to one thing. If we, Filipino Americans, can be in two places at one time, we will, but since we can’t, we make good on the promise of our childhood Christmases—we celebrate no matter where we are! After all, we are from that place where the season really starts on September 1 and ends early January after the Three Kings pay us a visit.
Even with that little tug in your heart, listen to the jolly old man in the red suit: Ho, ho, ho…Merry Christmas, I dare say!. Maligayang Pasko and Manigong Bagong Taon! It’s the season of cheers, with or without snow!