Looking Back

The first Christmas tree in the Philippines


Pangasinan is supposed to have gotten its name from its famous gourmet product, a coarse, pinkish sea salt (asin) praised by discriminating cooks all over the world. Pangasinan, depending on your informant, means either “land of salt” or “place where salt is made.”

But it seems that the province also contributes some enduring legends that should rightfully be taken with a grain of salt. First we have Urduja, who is believed to have been a 14th-century, Turkish-speaking amazon princess. Although debunked by historians, her name proudly remains on one of the buildings in the provincial Capitol and elsewhere in the country.

The other legend from Pangasinan is that the first Mass—or, to be specific, the first Christmas Mass—was celebrated somewhere on the coast of Bolinao in 1324! This assertion further complicates the issue of the first Mass or Masses brought by the Magellan expedition in 1521.

An interesting detail in this story is that the Mass was officiated by the Franciscan Odoric of Pordenone (c. 1286-1331), who travelled to Asia in the 14th century, and who also planted the first Christmas tree in the Philippines in 1324! It is not only the first Mass that is at issue here but also the Christmas tree, which became popular in Europe only in the 19th century and was probably brought to the Philippines in the early 20th century by the Americans.

I would like to think that the idea of the Christmas tree was actually brought to the Philippines in 1886 by Jose Rizal. We have two primary-source documents to support this claim: a manuscript containing Hans Christian Andersen tales that Rizal translated into Tagalog to delight his nephews and nieces; and a letter Rizal wrote in Berlin in November 1886 to his eldest sister Neneng (Saturnina) and her husband Maneng (Manuel Hidalgo).

Written in Rizal’s legible hand, “Ang Puno ng Pino,” the sad tale of a little fir tree, is illustrated with two spot drawings of a Christmas tree. In his letter to Neneng, the hero narrated that he attended religious services both in Catholic and Protestant churches. He even visited Jewish synagogues. “Everything that can teach me something interests me,” he said, “so that I can bring to the Philippines the best that I find here.”

In this letter, Rizal mentioned the Christmas traditions he encountered in Spain and Germany. On the Christmas tree he wrote:

“There are some beautiful and good [German] customs, like Christmas, which gives me pleasure to describe here for it is not found in Spain and you have not read about it in Spanish books. On Christmas Eve they bring from the forest a pine tree, and this tree is chosen because, besides being erect, it is the only tree that keeps its leaves during winter—I say it badly; not really leaves, but a kind of needle. It is decorated with tinsel, paper, lights, dolls, candy, fruits, dainties, etc., and at night time, it is shown to the children (who should see the preparation of it), and around this tree the family celebrates Christmas.”

Then Rizal described kissing under the mistletoe:

“They say, and I have also read it, that in England there is another custom which is for older persons. In certain parts of the house is hung a twig of mistletoe or  gui  in French. When a young man and woman find themselves under it and he does not kiss her, he must pay a fine or give her a present. For this reason, many young men stroll in the streets carrying a twig of mistletoe. When they see a pretty girl, they approach her and kiss her. When she looks up and sees the mistletoe held over her head by the mischievous young man, she smiles, keeps quiet, and says nothing. This is very English.”

Rizal concluded by comparing Spanish and German customs to state that Christmas in the Philippines was ruined by too much praying:

“The only custom I have seen in Madrid, which perhaps we have adopted, is eat a fish called  besugo  and roast turkey, which shows that the Spaniards do not indulge in poems for children and young people, or as the vulgar expression goes, they do not beat around the bush. They attend more to the positive, or the stomach. And   Carambas! they would say; let us amuse ourselves and let children and young people seek their own amusement as best they can. They do seek their own diversion, with the result that the children and young people in Spain lack the charming innocence and candor of those in the North [of Europe], without malice, without great preoccupations. A good young woman can walk alone in the streets until 10 or 11 o’clock at night without being molested. A pretty girl, educated and rich, can travel safely for leagues and leagues alone with her handbag and luggage. This is because here [in Germany] they know how to give age its due, unlike in other countries where children are not allowed to be themselves, to make noise or to play. Instead, they are made to recite the rosary and novena until the poor youngsters become very sleepy and understand nothing of what is going on. Consequently, when they reach the age of reason, they pray just as they have prayed when they were children without understanding what they are saying; they fall asleep and think of nonsense. Nothing can destroy a thing more than the abuse of it, and praying can also be abused.”

Merry Christmas!

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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Tags: Ambeth R. Ocampo , Christmas tree , Customs and Traditions , History , Jose Rizal , Looking Back , opinion , Pangasinan

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