The birth of Christ, not Santa coming to town

A Philippine Christmas: In art, the elements of family and religion are usually present

By Tony Joaquin

Around December during the prewar days in Manila, my parents would take me and my sisters shopping for new and nice clothes to wear for Christmas. The whole family would drive over with Papa behind the wheel of our 1940 Chevrolet to the popular shopping areas, primarily in Escolta. But we also had other choices of where to go for less expensive items, such as the stores in Avenida Rizal.

After Christmas shopping, our family would take us kids to have merienda in a popular Chinese restaurant in Ongpin Street before heading home.

As I recall, the elements which made my Christmas as a young boy memorable included my enjoying the hot thick ‘tsokolate’ prepared by my lola, the curing of the ham bought from the Chinese stores in Quiapo, the ‘queso de bola’ and the distinctive dishes that only Lola Salome could cook – ‘arroz a la valenciana,’ ‘lengua estofado,’ ‘morcon’ and ‘mechado’ — all accompanied by really hot pan de sal.

As a young Catholic boy in the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila, I looked forward to Christmas because it was the birthday of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The celebrations permeated both school and home with flourish. Early in the month of December we students were already busy with the decorations of classrooms with images of the Nativity, artistically drawn messages on blackboards, and a general spirit of excitement at the coming of the Lord.

As Christmas Day approached, our school prepared all of us students in a triduum – a three-day novena — where we would volunteer to take part in a round-the-clock vigil adoration leading to the birthday of Christ.

December 24 would be the culmination of the nine-day Simbang Gabi midnight masses. It is the eve of the day Christ was born. We fought heavy sleep-laden eyes to worship at the brightly lit altar decorated with colorful ‘parol.’ Prominent at the altar was the nativity grotto which featured St. Joseph, Mama Mary and the Child Jesus in the manger surrounded by sheep and the three Wise Men.

We cherished such a Christmas in my youth back in the Philippines. The air was filled with Christian hymns and prayers, and radio and television programs often featured stories based on the Bible.

Santa Claus was just an emerging image during those times, and not too many songs have been composed about that old man. Unlike today, almost all the songs are commercial ones, and one sees more of Santa than Jesus during the celebration.

I long for a truly Christian Christmas just like the one I used to have when I lived in the Philippines.

Tony Joaquin was a television producer-director, newspaper journalist, industrial trainer, and a soap opera actor in the Philippines. He still gets excited by new ideas, films, love and living. He is 81.

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