Of Christmases past and present
Because the warm family memories of my childhood Christmases continue to see me through life’s challenging seasons, I ensure that my children though now young professionals and grandchildren, ages six, three and one and a half years, are similarly blessed. More than the presents I received (we kids always calculated that the Lucero clan’s Christmas lunch reunion would earn us a total of at least seven because there were seven siblings—and please no handkerchiefs and socks, we prayed) were the memorable programs my first cousins and I had to nervously participate in, a requirement prior to gift-giving. Adding to my stage fright was my strong sense of inferiority in comparison to the talents in the clan.
Doreen and Della Gamboa were exempt because their exceptional abilities were already well-known to the family, and they were our revered older cousins. Sylvia Mayuga was always a charmer and outstanding in her elocution—how does one compete with a Voice of Democracy finalist? Nonette Teopaco would stun us with her violin renditions. My brothers Chito and Nelin were all-time hits as twins and had well delivered declamation pieces. The Mayugas, Joe, Cristie and Fenina entertained with their songs. I cannot even recall what I recited to “deserve” my Christmas loot, so it was far from a memorable performance.
At the Sta. Romana evening reunion which meant a larger assembly as my father had 11 siblings—which shocked and amused Elfren in the initial years of our marriage (describing it as akin to a political convention)—I had a different role as I was the perennial emcee. The bribe of the evening was receiving crisp bills from the clan patriarch, Leonardo—a philanthropist with no money, his children would say. As the number of grandchildren grew, the value of the bills decreased. But how my cousins and I enjoyed playing tag at the Sta. Romana Bakery’s huge baking room in Herran. To this day, I am asked if I am related to the bakery owners, evoking much nostalgia.
And there are Christmases that stand out because of extraordinary events bringing a gloomy overcast over the holiday mood. In 1972, the big family surprise was having Nelin released on Christmas Day from Camp Crame detention where he was held since the first wave of arrests that dark cruel night in September. It was some comfort to have him with us, as it somehow eased the pain of Chito’s absence, then gone for two Christmases, in political exile in China.
Christmas in 1985 was spent in Singapore and for the first time in 14 years, Chito could fly in from Beijing to join us. This was primarily for the sake of our mother, who while still stylish and full of life, now walked with a cane. This was an austere celebration contrasting with Manila’s lavish holiday feasting, but certainly one of our happiest Christmases. It was an emotional farewell at the airport, with us uncertain when we would see Chito again despite his reassurances that he would outlive the dictator and with my mother saying with all certainty that “Cory would win” in the 1986 elections. How unrealistically optimistic Mama was, I secretly thought.
There are many other Christmases I need to document for the next generation. The Christmas our son Roel discovered for himself who Santa was by beating Santa to the wrapped presents in my secret cabinets. The Christmas I needed to spend in wintry Europe to check if my “new” constitution would pass the test. The painful Christmas with my mother gone—and my sister Chona gone too, having been treacherously shot.
But no matter the circumstances, Christmas remains meaningful because of the warmth of family.
May your Christmases be full of memories to look back to. As Dr. Seuss wrote in his 60-year-old classic, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” may you “Welcome Christmas… Heart to heart and hand in hand.” No, Christmas doesn’t come from a store.
Neni Sta. Romana Cruz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.
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