Late, away-from-home Christmases | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Late, away-from-home Christmases

/ 12:16 AM December 14, 2016

Searching for primary sources on Christmas in the Philippines, I started with Rizal’s surly letter to his lawyer in December 1896, then went to his letters from earlier years, where he described Christmas in Europe with a lump in the throat as he pined for Christmas in the Philippines.

After Rizal’s Christmas letters I read up on letters from young soldiers from Nebraska, Colorado and other states that sent fodder for the Philippine-American War at the turn of the last century—and I saw how they, too, missed Christmas at home.


These young men, far away from home, were sorely disappointed when their Christmas boxes in 1900 were not shipped to Manila. Strategists in Washington believed Aguinaldo and the Filipinos could be beaten into submission in a matter of months. They ate their words and sent the Christmas boxes late, but these were still received heartily by the men who celebrated Christmas in April.

The same held true for World War II American prisoners of war in Davao who were given not Christmas boxes, but Red Cross rations that had been withheld or used up by the Japanese elsewhere. Commander Melvin H. McCoy, US Navy survivor of the Bataan Death March, in his book “Ten Escape from Tojo” (1944) recounted: “The news was true. There were, indeed, Red Cross boxes, and two for each prisoner. More than that, they meant to each of us… home. As each prisoner ripped open a box, I suspect that there were many besides myself who worked with a catch in the throat.


“I will make no attempt to describe the joy with which those Red Cross boxes were received. Just as there is no word for “truth” in the Japanese language, neither are there any words known to me which could describe the feelings with which we greeted this first communication from our homeland. And what a welcome message those boxes contained!

“First of all, there was coffee—a concentrate which tasted better than any steaming cup I had ever drunk to cheer an icy night on the bridge of a ship at sea. It was the first I had tasted since a smuggled sip in Old Bilibid Prison, back in Manila. There were chocolate bars, there was cheese, there were tinned meats and sardines, there were cigarettes, and there was a portion each of tea, cocoa, salt, pepper and sugar. Best of all, there were sulfa drugs and precious quinine!

“Since I did not smoke, I very quickly made an advantageous trade for my cigarettes—the only tobacco available for those who used it was a coarse native leaf which grew within the prison confines. Often this was not available, and the prisoners resorted to corn silk and dried leaves. In my trading, however, I could find nobody who would give up a crumb of his cheese: we had known no butter, milk or any kind of dairy product since our capture…. Our Christmas had been delayed, but it was one of the most enjoyable many of us will ever remember.

“In addition, to the two boxes received by each prisoner, each of us also received fifteen cans of corned beef or meat-and-vegetable stew. This was rationed to us by the Japanese at the rate of two cans a week, and it therefore lasted us approximately eight weeks. The food during those eight weeks was the best and most nourishing I received in all the eleven months of my imprisonment by the Japanese.

“But our belated Christmas rejoicings had a dark side, too. In the first place, we learned that our precious Red Cross supplies had been received aboard a diplomatic ship back in June of 1942, in Japan. We never learned why it took them some seven months to reach us in Davao. More catastrophic was the fact that, as soon as our boxes were received, the Japanese promptly discontinued the meager supply of vegetables which we had been rationed in the past. And when each man had eaten the last of his fifteen cans of meat, the vegetables still were withheld from us.

“In short, we were back on the same rations we had received at Cabanatuan—lugao in the morning, and rice with a half-canteen cupful of watery camote-top soup for the other two meals.”

With the K-to-12 program upon us, I hope to gather enough first-hand accounts like the above to make history come alive for bored students who should be given a more memorable Araling Panlipunan.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Subscribe to our daily newsletter

By providing an email address. I agree to the Terms of Use and acknowledge that I have read the Privacy Policy.

Read Next
Don't miss out on the latest news and information.

Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.

TAGS: Celebration, Christmas, Holiday, opinion
For feedback, complaints, or inquiries, contact us.
Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Fearless views on the news

By providing an email address. I agree to the Terms of Use and acknowledge that I have read the Privacy Policy.

© Copyright 1997-2023 | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.