Remembering the Baguio Christmas of my youth

The author in her teens: Feeling nostalgic during the holiday season.

By Ludy Astraquillo Ongkeko, Ph.D.

If there is anything that brings tears suddenly, it is the Christmas holiday season.

I remember my old hometown, the city of Baguio in  Northern Luzon, the Philippines. Located 5,000 feet above sea level, it is known for its cool mountain air. Local and foreign tourists love to visit the city during the summer.

Weeks before Christmas, our living room’s fireplace would serve as the center of comfort when the cold would set in.

Most of us attended public schools.  Our Arts teacher would show Christmas feasts sketched by schoolchildren.  We, who were taught Home Economics, would embroider flowers in the red and green colors of Christmas.

We sang Christmas carols each school day as we went around our classroom, placing flowers on vases to adorn the windows. All grades would participate in singing Christmas songs before the start of classes. Each day, closer to Christmas Day, most schoolchildren would wear a green or red ribbon on their uniforms to recognize the colors of the season.

My father always remembered how the five of us, his children, insisted on a Christmas tree in our living room weeks before Christmas Day.  When the tree would arrive, we were ready to decorate it with tinsels and Christmas lights. We just loved looking at the tree with the blinking lights. It was gradually looking like Christmas itself.

Our residence would be decked with meaningful Christmas tokens.  The lanterns would be lighted as though they were there to ward off the cold. Our help would take charge of keeping the small red and green electric bulbs working because it would be unsafe to keep lighted candles all night long. Our living room fireplace would be warmed up whenever it got too cold.

‘Baguio will always be home.’ Photo:

Christmas Eve was our long-awaited event.

We siblings would join our parents at midnight mass held at the Baguio Cathedral.  It would be cold, but we didn’t mind it.  All we had looked forward to were the pre-mass musicians who were garbed in red and green attire. We would join the choral groups in the singing.   

Returning home after the midnight mass meant rushing to our Christmas tree to claim our presents.  My mother who was a pianist and a soloist would lead us in singing the musical gems we had committed to memory in our early childhood.  We didn’t need hymn books because she saw to it that we were serious about learning songs and remembering them over time.

When I was off to college at the University of the Philippines on Padre Faura Street in Manila during my first semester in January 1946, we were asked to write in English class about our “Reminiscences of the Old Hometown.”  I wrote about the Christmases I left behind in Baguio. 

My then-English teacher, without informing me, sent my essay to The Collegian, the university

publication.  That was the very first time I saw my byline.  That was likewise how the then editor-in-chief contacted me to be a reporter for the college paper.

At this stage in my life as a senior citizen many decades away from the homeland, so many memories bring so much nostalgia. Each time I’d visit Baguio, I would look up my old playmates only to find out many of them were gone.

Just before the holidays, a friend, Ching Aspillaga, left for Baguio recently, I asked him to find out about some of my old classmates. On his return, he informed me how not a single one I inquired about is still around.

I was so saddened.  Ching likewise informed me that our old hometown is no longer in existence. He warned me: “It’s best for you not to visit Baguio any longer.  You’ll just cry when you see it in the manner it looks today.”

As I think about Baguio from my end, I am more than grateful that I became a survivor of World

War II. Although I was already in college, I would grab the first chance I had to return to my

old hometown even just to breathe clear air. 

I would remember that although the city was once reduced to rubble and ruined by the war, what will forever be enshrined in my heart is that Baguio will remain home to me.

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© The FilAm 2020

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