Every year, amidst all the rush and stress of the holidays, I think about how different my Christmas was when I lived in the Philippines. My parents never seemed to stress during this period. I remember my first Christmas there after my father retired from the US Navy (I was twelve). We didn't have a Christmas tree. We had these instead ...
These are called parols or Christmas Star lanterns. They represent the Star of Bethlehem and were once used to light the way to church for the Misa de Gallo, the early morning Christmas Eve mass. To see vendors selling parols is usually the first sign of the coming holiday season ... aren't they lovely?
So, no Christmas tree. Then I was thrown for loop when my parents said there were no presents to open on Christmas morning (yikes!). What I did instead was visit my grandparents, godparents, aunts and uncles. I greeted them with a Merry Christmas and kissed their hands. This is a traditional Filipino way to show respect for your elders ...
... I would say "mano, po", press my forehead to their hand, especially my grandparents, as a way of normal greeting. And on Chritmas day, instead of wrapped gifts, I received CASH. Cool, huh?
Another tradition I remember well is called Simbang Gabi. This is when Filipinos go to mass at dawn beginning on December 16. It lasts for nine days and ends on Christmas Eve when the mass is celebrated to welcome the baby Jesus. I remember hearing the church bells ring, watching people walking to church in the darkness of the predawn hours.
This is called puto bungbong. It's made from a purple glutinous rice that is ground and steamed in bamboo tubes. As you can see in the picture, it is served with a generous amount of sugar and fresh grated coconut. YUM!
This is a bibingka special. You could buy this delightful little cake freshly baked in clay pots over a charcoal fire (sorta like dutch ovens) right at the stands! They are baked in banana leaves, which by the way, make food very fragrant. These are like pancakes in a way with cheese and a slice of salted egg baked right in (trust me, the egg is the BEST part!).
My childhood Christmases in the Philippines were tree-less and Santa-less but I learned a whole lot about how wonderful it was to visit with family, share good meals, take part in traditions my parents followed which was centered on the very reason why we celebrate this holiday. The birth of Jesus. It is my dearest wish that someday, my children will experience that kind of Christmas and the richness of their heritage as Filipinos.
Don't get me wrong, I love our American traditions as well. I especially love the opportunities this season gives us to reach out to those in need. I work at the City of Hope and every year, our department adopts a family who has a loved one suffering from cancer. The families in the program are usually in financial hardship (especially if the patient is a parent and cannot work) which means they'll probably have a rather bleak Christmas. When we adopt a family, everyone in our department will contribute a gift or some money so that the adopted family can celebrate with ease and happiness. Doing things like this always makes me feel great and sets the stage for giving and helping others throughout the year ... well, I guess it's time to get back to my holiday tasks ...
I wish all my friends and family a happy and joyous holiday. I hope this season finds you in the company of those you love ... Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.