Everyone has favorite Christmas memories, and these usually revolve around the family. No doubt the reader also has his own. I have many favorite Christmas memories, but the ones I treasure most are those about my young family during the Christmas season. For aging people like me, quiet moments are usually spent thinking back to when the children, now grownup, were babies, toddlers or grade-schoolers. By dredging up such memories, the happiness of those bygone years comes back and stays with us every time we look back.
For me and my wife, the best Christmas memories are those when we all trimmed the Christmas tree—and I presume it is the same with many other families. Each member of my family—wife, grade-schooler daughter and son, and toddler-daughter—participated in trimming the tree with lights and assorted decorations and trinkets.
Our first Christmas tree was a piece of bamboo cut from our front yard, its branches trimmed to a pyramid. The first lights were the tiny, multicolored, blinking globes (firefly lights did not exist yet then).
The first decorations were Styrofoam boards that I cut in the shapes of stars, bells, and globes. I also cut cellophane and white crepe paper into thin strips to resemble icicles and draped them on the branches along with the blinking lights. The children said there should be snow, so we put cotton on the branches to resemble snow—an indication of the Filipino colonial mentality acquired from Christmas cards, postcards, Grandma Moses paintings, and magazine photographs.
Our next trees were pine trees cut by Igorot in Baguio and Benguet and taken to the lowlands to be sold. For days, our house would be filled with the sweet scent of the pine trees.
Meanwhile, for decorations we had started to buy shiny, multicolored globes, plastic angels, bells, and reindeer. After Christmas, all these were carefully stored. Nothing was thrown away, except the pine tree when it turned brown well after the Feast of the Three Kings.
Later came the plastic or nylon Christmas trees bought in department stores with authentic-looking pine needles in green or white—another influence of the white Christmas in temperate countries. Still later, there would be the Christmas trees with plastic needles held together by twisted wire—the most common today and the most durable.
Whether bamboo or Benguet pine, nylon or wire and plastic, it was a joy to trim our Christmas tree.
The whole family would gather around the tree to dress it up. First, the lights would be strung, then the trinkets would be hung from the branches. Everybody had his/her own favorite decorations. Sometimes there would be disagreements on where to put certain decorations. Even the toddler would pick decorations and hand them to her sister or brother. Every once in a while, we would back away to view the tree from a distance, then go back to rearrange some trimmings.
We wouldn’t finish until well past midnight. And then we would sit on the floor around the tree and admire our handiwork, with the colored lights blinking happily. My wife and I would gather the three children in our arms and hug them tightly, very happy at our closeness.
My wife would prepare some chocolate, then set steaming cups on the floor with ensaymada she had bought earlier, after which we would sing Christmas carols before going to sleep at dawn.
Later, during my travels and when my youngest daughter was training at Yale Medical Center in Connecticut, we collected decorations made in different countries and sold in souvenir stores all over the US East Coast.
When I vacationed with her one summer, we visited the souvenir shops of the New England states for Christmas decorations. These shops sell nothing but Christmas decorations the whole year round, and tourists flock to them even when Christmas is still far away.
The decorations come from all over the world: Mexico, Africa, Canada, Japan, China, Korea, Italy, Australia, India, and the Philippines. The Santa Clauses and shepherds therefore come in a variety of garbs. The Santa from Mexico wore a wide sombrero and a poncho; the Three Kings rode, not camels but donkeys. Those from Australia were like the aborigines and carried boomerangs. Among the animals keeping watch in Bethlehem were kangaroos. Those from India had turbans, and those from Japan, China and Korea had slit eyes. Those from the Philippines had Santa wearing a salakot and his sleigh pulled, not by reindeer, but by carabaos. The Three Kings also rode carabaos, not camels, and among the animals around the Bethlehem stable were also carabaos.
The belen also had the Holy Family in different costumes and with fair or dark complexions, depending on which country they were made. Those from the Philippines had the Virgin Mary in baro’t saya and Saint Joseph in barong Tagalog.
In time, we had so many Christmas decorations that we had to use them by turns. The bulk was kept in storage, some to be used next year, others two years later, and so forth.
This year, we used a fiber-optic, eight-foot Christmas tree. The fiber-optic lights are no longer functioning, so I put firefly lights. For decorations, we used the common small multicolored globes. My driver and maid helped me trim the tree while my wife sat in a chair and watched.
“Where are our children?” she asked. “They should be decorating the tree. I remember when they were children, they all helped.” Alas, they are all grown now. My son has a family of his own, with two daughters. My younger daughter is a doctor lecturing all over the world, and my older daughter is busy managing the house.
My wife sighed: “Those were very happy days.”