Christmas is not what it used to be. Sure, the blinking Christmas lights and pricey parols and almost real plastic pine Christmas trees and the shinny gift wraps underscores the merriness of the season. The noche buena spread now includes ham and apples and oatmeal cookies and Pad Thai noodles to go with the red wine and imported whiskey. But somehow, I missed the oily pansit bihon and the sugar-sprinkled margarine sandwich washed down with an anemic fruit juice chilled by the biting mountain wind.
Many years ago in the magical village of Almaguer, there lived a boy whom everybody called Abet. The holidays for him is when everybody seemed to be kinder and more generous, and his Mom would bring in a guava branch shorn of its leaves which Abet and his younger brother will help coat with imitation snow made from grated Perla detergent soap dissolved in water, and decorate with tiny plastic toys and pieces of White Rabbit, Viva and Candy Mint. The parol too was homemade: pieces of flat bamboo sticks shaped like David’s star tied together back-to-back then inserted with 4 pieces of bamboo plugs where the grids meet to create the body before being covered with colored cellophane (usually red). The frame ribs where the pasted edges show were then hidden by paper trimmings and the tails made from layers of 2 or 3-colored papel de hapon skillfully scissored with cut-out designs on all sides. “The sun will take care of the wrinkles,” Abet’s mom would say.
Christmas for Abet is also waking at 3 am and jogging with his friends the 5 kilometers to the ili for the simbang gabi then back. It was the time when they dressed stateside with the naphthalene scented huge and thick winter overcoats that came with the used yellow Sheraton Hotel blankets courtesy of relatives from the States, and the Baguio bonnets that cover everything in their heads except the eyes. It sure kept the cold away.
Christmas carols then was a serious business. They would start from the amianan then sing their way back to Purok Singko in the abagatan. People really paid attention to the songs and “Patawad po!” is unheard of. Their repertoire would start with a popular Ilocano Christmas song “Daytoy a balay ti naturong mi / Balay yu Nanang nga am-ammo mi / Daytoy ngatan tay pakagulpian mi / Ti nawadwad nga aginaldo mi…” followed by “Soooopas da boys op an eeeengel…” before the concluding and obligatory “Tenk yu / Tenk yu / Tenk yu mister en misis / tenk yu!”.
One of the season’s highlights will be the Christmas program in the Sabadista school where Abet and his classmates will recite Christmas greetings in different languages (his favorite was the Hawaiian “Meli Kalikimaka”), form a line with each child holding a letter from the MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR greeting then each one jumping on cue and explaining the meaning of each letter. Christmas songs were also sang in between presentations by an impromptu choral group followed by a boring balagtasan where Abet was the Lakandiwa before the program culminates in the reenactment of the Nativity. The show was not much and delivered mostly in English that even the school children don’t understand but the people of Almaguer came to watch until the end of the program. The important thing is adda ti mabuya.
On the 24th, the whole barrio converged at the plaza suddenly brightly lighted with dozens of hasag. Each purok makes a presentation. That for Abet’s Purok Singko was a skit on why women washed the dishes. He acted the husband and the wife was Sabing who now spends Christmas in wintry Canada. Uncle Ilyo who just came from Saudi Arabia put up a P200 prize for a danniw competition which Abet’s younger brother won it with his rendition of “No Other Love”. The young mayor came to give Amang Lakay’s P500 prize for having the cleanest and most productive bangkag in Almaguer. Then everybody went home for the Christmas Eve feast of oily pansit bihon and the sugar-sprinkled margarine sandwich washed down with an anemic fruit juice chilled by the biting mountain wind.
Abet received his gifts the next day. He always had small boxes of Curly Tops from his Ninang across the street and Lola Senang in Bambang. And yes, there was also a chocolate covered marshmallow from Auntie Angeling and assorted candy from a cousin. His younger brother who only had one box of Curly Tops and would not let him forget the P200 he won the other night would die of apal, Abet smirked.
It was a simple Christmas but a great time.
PHOTOS (top to bottom):
(1) Luisiana was formerly known as Ibabang Nasuno and its first parochial building is a chapel that was built in 1838. (2) Luisiana's Iglesia Filipiniana Independiente or Aglipayan Church was established in 1904. Its church was probably built afterwards just beside the Roman Catholic church. (3) Abet the Lakandiwa during the Balagtasan portion of the Sabadista school’s annual Christmas program in Almaguer. (4) Amang Lakay (left) receiving his cash prize of having the cleanest and most productive bangcag from Bambang Mayor Benjamin “Boyie” Cuaresma. Mayor Boyie’s father, the former Mayor Benjamin “Herodes” Cuaresma, lives just across Amang Lakay’s house in Almaguer before moving to the ili. Mayor Boyie was killed by NPA guerillas during the 1989 election campaign and was replaced by his wife who served the maximum 3 terms, was Nueva Vizcaya vice-governor for another 3 terms, and is now in her second term as the province’s governor. Their eldest son, Benjamin “Jamie” Cuaresma, has just been elected as the new mayor of Bambang.