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Rizal’s Berlin Christmas, 1886

/ 04:07 AM December 25, 2020

Writing Christmas, Rizal Day, New Year, Chinese New Year, Easter, Independence Day, and Bonifacio Day columns should be “sisiw” by now, as they say for anything easy. But my annual challenge is finding something new, something I have not written before, which is difficult, having written bi-weekly columns for the past 33 years (30 of them in this space in the Inquirer).

When I see trending historical articles online on topics I have written about long ago, I shrug my shoulders, say “been there done that,” and contemplate rehashing old material for a new audience. Since Rizal left us with 25 volumes of compiled writings, the task must be simple; there must be something on Christmas I have not used before.

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Much has been written about his bleak Christmas in 1896, when he was a prisoner on death row in Fort Santiago. One would think that the military court hearing Rizal’s trial for treason would have suspended hearings in late December and resumed in January 1897 to give themselves, and more so the doomed prisoner, a break. A recess would have afforded Rizal a last chance to celebrate Christmas and New Year in his cell. If friends and immediate family were allowed to visit, he could have told them all he wanted to say to them, and them to him, before he died.

He wrote his mother from Berlin on Dec. 25, 1886, gave some reflections on Christmas and human nature, and even hinted at some sort of telepathy that connected them even if they were miles away and didn’t have Viber, WhatsApp, or Messenger.

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It read: “My dearest mother: Today, Christmas, I take up the pen to write you a few lines; I want to devote a few hours this morning to a mental conversation with you while I think constantly that probably at this time the little grandchildren are bustling to kiss the hands of the grandparents to receive the expected Christmas gifts. Above my room the boys of the carpenter are running around and enjoying themselves blowing a cornet, that probably was given to them last night, which was Children’s Day [here].

“I celebrated Christmas with a countryman who has come from Barcelona—the physician Máximo Viola—sharing with him a chicken, beer, etc., etc. You know that since I attained the age of discretion, I have always tried to celebrate this holiday for being the birthday of a great man who was the first to proclaim the equality of men, and because this holiday always brings me back many memories of the paternal home. Since I have been in Europe I have celebrated it sometimes in company with countrymen, sometimes alone, and I haven’t hesitated to spend for it the little money I have.

“For three nights now I have continually dreamed of you and sometimes the dream is repeated in a single night. I should not like to be superstitious, even though the Bible and the Gospels believe in dreams, but I like to believe that you are constantly thinking of me, and that makes my brain reproduce what is going on in yours, for after all my brain is a part of yours, and it is not surprising, because when I’m asleep here, you are awake there and so on.

“For almost about a week nothing but snow falls; I’m wrong, people walking on the street also fall, for snow is slippery when it is treaded upon. My friend Viola and I walk carefully, holding on to each other so that in case one falls, he can grasp the other.”

Rizal described seeing a prominent general, dressed simply, and walking alone. He didn’t wear medals and decorations, he didn’t attract attention to himself. Rizal was reminded of friars, mayors, and Guardia Civil back home who demanded respect even if they didn’t deserve it.

Rizal reminds us to distinguish the worthy from nonentities and give the kulang sa pansin some attention:

“But, what are we to do?… for after God had denied them intelligence, reason, and common sense, after society had denied them education, instruction, and consideration and we… would deny them the salute, what else would be left to these hapless men in this vale of tears but a piece of rope with which to hang themselves?… I’m very repentant of my past conduct… and henceforth I propose to salute them in order not to leave them in despair lest God ask me to render an account of the damnation of a Christian soul… and to conclude this question of saluting, it is good to distinguish the worthy persons from the nonentities.”

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Merry Christmas!

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: 1886, Berlin, Christmas, History, Jose Rizal
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