D.I.Y. gifts from long ago

Published December 23, 2021, 12:00 PM

by Sol Vanzi

Christmas back then was one full of effort, creativity, and meaning, and this generation should learn from it

A flood of memories swept through me when a package sent by childhood friend Letty arrived from Chicago where she’s happily retired with her children and grandchildren. The FedEx envelope contained a neatly folded white cotton handkerchief with the initials LC crudely embroidered in one corner.

That hanky, now yellowing with age, is one of nine I had cut from a yard of cheesecloth and gave as Christmas gifts to my closest friends and playmates 70 years ago. I had learned basic sewing and embroidery stitches from public school teachers who valued homemaking skills as much as reading and writing. The talent came in handy when it was time to produce Christmas gifts using free materials and the small amount I had saved from a daily baon of 20 centavos.

Cashless presents — What we lacked in cash was made up for by access to free materials from grandpa’s jeepney-building shop and grandma’s seamstress sideline. There were always boxes of leftover canvas, cloth, thread, buttons, and related stuff. We just had to know how to use them.

Our small hands were quick to learn how to make wallets, coin purses, hair bows, bags, book covers, and simple bags using scraps from our grandparents’ workshops.

Corn starch and paper — All the students had to pitch in for a Christmas tree and several parols (Christmas lanterns), for which we prepared as early as November. Boys cut a bakawan (mangrove) tree from the bank of the Zapote River and stripped it of all leaves. Girls cooked gawgaw (corn starch) with water to make paste.

Over a weekend, green crepe paper was cut into strips and pasted over all the bare branches. Cotton was spread over the branches to resemble a blanket of snow. The Christmas tree was ready for handmade décor and hanging small gifts. At the very top was a star cut from foil saved from cigarette packs.

On the last day of school, we distributed our gifts and spent the day comparing presents. As usual, the Christmas tree was not taken down but allowed to lord it over the empty classroom for the duration of the Christmas vacation. It was to be our first task when we resume classes after the New Year.

The parols hanging from the windows were taken to a warehouse for safekeeping. Next year, they would have paper and cellophane replaced, their bamboo frames checked for cracks.

Busy Christmas break — The two-week holiday break was always our year’s highlight. There were simply too many things to do. We helped put up a ponda (pop-up food stand) for a female single cousin, made suman and ube halaya for visiting relatives, and scrubbed the house clean with water and isis leaves.

For fun and games, we gathered quail eggs from nests in freshly-harvested rice fields, made and flew kites, caught tilapia from fishponds, collected oysters and clams from the clean shores of Manila Bay. The days were never long enough for all the things we wanted to do. The evenings were no different.

Before and after dinner, our gang went around town with a guitar, homemade tambourine, and drums. Our parents had no worries about bad guys. We came and went freely, coming home only after the Simbang Gabi (devotional Masses).

Seniors like me are often asked what we did to pass the time in the days before TV, malls, cell phones, internet, social media, and Netflix. We were simply too busy to get bored.

Good days gone—Seniors like me are often asked what we did to pass the time in the days before TV, malls, cell phones, internet, social media, and Netflix. We were simply too busy to get bored.