Rediscovering the Christmas spirit

Published December 24, 2021, 4:00 PM

by Pao Vergara

It’s a trope as old as time: the jadedness of realizing Santa ain’t real, figuratively especially. But here’s why we as adults need to reclaim the spirit of the season

There’s something about the Filipino Christmas. And Filipino authors since Rizal have tried to capture and communicate that “something,” that spirit, that sensibility as, aside from Ibarra’s wistful if festive Christmas the Noli, acclaimed books by this generation’s writers are complete with Christmas scenes.
Truly, it’s not a Filipino novel if there’s no character-development-under-a-street-of-parols. You can replace the street of parols with Noche Buena, too.

I remember shivers running down my spine as diaspora writer Elaine Castillo depicted a ’90s Los Angeles neighborhood decked by parols, smelling of lechon and brandy, with karaoke reverberating all around, and of course, a young girl, her grandparents, and a 30something Filipina protagonist in America Is Not the Heart, a scene straight out of Manila if not for the cold and grunge mixing with rondalla music.

The same chills reappeared months later when I read the Christmas scene in Katrina Olan’s mecha sci-fi novel Tablay, set in a 22nd-century New Intramuros where, despite a raging war between humanity’s remnants and aswangs, the soldiers still manage to have Noche Buena on leave, away from the front.

Both scenes, like that in the Noli, were deployed to set the stage for major character interactions, forming reader attachment to make the character deaths hit harder.

And yet, tied with this collective memory of Christmas we share is the equally-universal experience that as one gets older, one loses the Christmas spirit.

What it means to grow old determines how we perceive Christmas, fruitcake or no fruitcake, parol or no parol.

Our authors put to words what impressions childhood Christmases have left on most of us. Please indulge this writer as he tries to capture the universal in the personal through his own memories of childhood Christmases.

Yellow, incandescent lights above as I lay on lola (grandmother)’s lap. Mom talking to my best friend’s mom over landline in the room below as I sat on the rooftop, gazing at the Sierra Madres as the breeze from there swept over me, a Christmas tree on its own.

Dad driving my sister and me around the barangay just so we, in our innocence, could marvel at the displays of other houses.

Lolo (grandfather) crooning a mix of Western and Filipino hymns as their tunes emanated from the tiny box attached to the Christmas lights on the tree. Caroling with friends, some armed with school-required bamboo flutes, the more talented ones with oversized (at that age) Yamahas, the rest jingling with coin purses.

Uncle inviting the carpenters over for beer and karaoke, as they all taught me how to light kwitis (skyrockets).

I felt that here, surrounded by family and mundane festivity, as Gregorio Brilliantes wrote in the short story “The Distance to Andromeda,” no evil could touch me.

The house is empty now. It will be up for sale in 2022. Between 2010 and 2020, my parents separated, and lola, lolo, uncle, and mom passed away, mom being the last to go in late 2020, weeks before Christmas. That lazy morning, I was thinking about the Noche Buena I wanted to cook for her that year, when after breakfast she asked, in pain, to be brought to the ER. She never made it home that night.

It was a decade that closed a chapter. I remember a nightmare I had as a child one yuletide: that I woke up, and the house was empty and dilapidated, and that torn parols, their frames exposed, were rattled by the bitter Amihan against the peeling walls. But I woke up in this world, and the parols were intact and it was the morning of Christmas Eve and lola asked if I wanted to learn how to help make pudding.

Part of growing up was realizing that, despite the imperfections of the elders around me and the imperfection too of the social circumstances, they all tried to give their children, grandchildren, and surrogates a good Christmas. And what for a child is a good Christmas? A feeling of safety, of being loved, of being part of a big celebration of life.

Perhaps it wasn’t so much a nightmare as it was a vision of the future.
Part of growing up was realizing that, despite the imperfections of the elders around me and the imperfection too of the social circumstances, they all tried to give their children, grandchildren, and surrogates a good Christmas. And what for a child is a good Christmas? A feeling of safety, a feeling of being loved, a feeling of being part of a big celebration of life.

And how did they do that? Despite my then-young parents’ and uncle’s own fears and insecurities? Despite my still-dark-haired grandparents growing world weariness? I think it’s empathy, the ability to relate with children, having reconnected, if only for one season or one month, with the inner child. It’s tapping into our reserves of goodwill and affection, despite our fears, worries, and whatnot. Now isn’t that courage? Isn’t that strength? Who says the child in adulthood is weak?

Now I want to make Christmases that leave a mark for kids, to remind them, when they get older and get more and more exposed to injustices tiny and large, that the world still has beautiful and good things. That there’s still love. That they can be both the nephew learning how to light a kwitis and the uncle teaching the niece.

I may not afford a fancy aguinaldo for my nieces and nephews but I can at least leave a warm, cozy, pabaon, a memory, or, failing something so specific, at least an impression that young(er) people can bring through life: a refuge, an anchor.

Something like the last scene in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, where one brother, the idealist, implores a group of children, after being true friends to another child they once bullied, to remember what they’re capable of doing, of the goodness in the world happening through them even if the circumstances of their lives would change down the line, even if they might end up very different people later.

There is goodness. You were, are, and can be part of that goodness.