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24 December 2008

The night before Christmas

AS A Catholic child growing up in Manila in the seventies, magic meant three things to me: (1) my birthday, when the best gift invariably came from my eldest sister, (2) someone's wedding, where I marched as a ring or coin bearer in church and then gorged on fried chicken at the reception, and (3) Christmas Eve, the only time of the year when my siblings and I, all kids, stayed up late without getting sleepy.

Christmas Eve was always more charming than Christmas Day itself. By this time, school was over for the holidays. We had already regaled Papa's company party with a dance of endlessly repeated steps (right step, back step, arms up, arms down) choreographed by our older sisters. We had performed the same number in the annual family reunion a few days earlier, where our cousins always outdid us with loud James Last numbers. I was often too sleepy to remember what they actually did, although I remember them going home with big cash envelopes from aunts and uncles who must have loved whatever they were doing. We had already collected our colorfully-wrapped gifts from unsmiling godparents, a task completed through Mama's direct intervention. And by now we had decorated the small Christmas tree in the living room with all those gifts, with stern warnings from Mama not to open the gifts until Christmas Day itself.

Oh, that Christmas tree. We kept the same one year after year. It was a three-foot affair, made of wire cone covered in sheets of absorbent cotton. I had a lot of fun helping build it: under the cotton came the blinking Christmas lights contained in 1-inch breakable shapes, on top of it came red tinsel foil and sequin-filled balls. A bristly golden star sat on top, and it was always askew. Every night, the lights were plugged; every night, I would stare mesmerized at this blinking, glistening cotton-filled cone called Christmas tree.

On the early morning of Christmas Eve, we were roused from sleep to attend the last of nine consecutive dawn masses. I never attended the previous masses, called simbang gabi or misa de gallo, but this morning's edition would be mandatory for all of us. The rest of the day was quiet, as the older folks were doing last-minute groceries, usually at Nepa Q Mart or Queen's Supermarket. Towards the evening, we'd fuss over the brand-new shirts and jeans that we'd wear for yet another mass. With nothing but hot Milo chocolate drink to keep our tummies from growling impolitely during this late night mass, we filed into the church pews according to age. Afterwards, we trekked into the chilly night, walking home briskly to attend the most fabulous activity of all.

This was the noche buena or Christmas dinner. Those expensive, untouchable Noritake dinnerware displayed in cupboards now filled the table with the biggest servings of pancit (egg noodles), lumpia (spring rolls), estofado (pork stew), queso de bola (cheese), and, best of all, fried chicken. Mama and her sisters took turns cutting up the jamonado (smoked ham) and heaping our plates with ample slices. Even for a large extended family like ours, there was always food left on the table (and there was always food recooked for the next several days!). The house that night was filled with the aroma of boiled salabat (ginger ale) and orange peel, the music of Mitch Miller singing carols from the turntable, and reflections of lights from that cotton Christmas tree. It was always magical.

Later, when it was time for bed, my brothers and I would hang socks from the windows with hopes that we'd catch Santa Claus sneaking in. I never managed to see him: I was often the first to plunk to sleep . . . and the first to greet everyone the next morning with “Merry Christmas”.

Here’s wishing you all a “Merry Christmas” on this happy Christmas Eve of 2008!

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