Sad Christmas letters | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Sad Christmas letters

/ 05:04 AM December 22, 2023


What do I want for Christmas? More shelves than books. On or around Christmas, I am hard-pressed to write a column on a topic I have not covered in the 38 years I have been writing. My go-to references are: the 25 volumes of Jose Rizal’s collected writings, the five volume compilation of documents known as “The Philippine Insurrection Against the United States,” and “The Philippine Islands,” a 55-volume compilation of historical documents that cover the Spanish period from 1493-1898. These are my favorites, literally, an arm’s reach away, shelved right behind my swivel chair. Of course, there are more references available but are hard to find. Lack of shelf space forced me to fill each shelf with two rows of books. I try my best to keep small books in front and tall books in the back to make retrieval easier. If and when I move, I plan to have custom shelves fabricated to new specifications, the shelves have to be twice as high as the present ones, and twice as deep. Books shelved in the back will be raised to make spines visible from the front.

Marcelo H. del Pilar’s compiled writings fill four volumes: two “Escritos” and two “Epistolario,” the former are his political writings, the latter his correspondence. Each volume gives you a different side of “Plaridel.” Volume 1 is dedicated to his correspondence with colleagues in the Propaganda Movement, these letters paint Plaridel as national hero. From these letters, Plaridel is immortalized in textbook history, fossilized in monuments and memory. Volume 2 contains letters from Plaridel in Spain to his wife, Marciana or “Tsanay,” in Bulacan. From these personal letters we see the hero as a human, someone who complains of various aches and pains, someone whose greatest pain was being separated from his two growing daughters: Anita and Sofia.

From the 105 letters, written from February 1889 to May 1895, only three were written during Christmas when the physical cold of winter was made worse by homesickness and longing. The first dated Dec. 24, 1889 reads:


“Tsanay: it is 5.30 in the afternoon here [in Madrid], and 2 a.m. there [Bulacan]. You have had your Christmas Eve mass and feast [noche buena] already but we here have talked about nothing all day except how happy Christmas is there. I can imagine Sofia and Anita with all the children in the neighborhood are now in a day of joy. If I could only have my way, we will be celebrating together, God-willing, next Christmas.

“It’s good that Sofia is fat and Anita is strong. Do not allow Anita to hit her elder sister, she might get used to being disrespectful to Sofia, and it will be hard to correct when she is older. I hope that Sofia will be patient with her younger sister, she does not mean what she does, she is young and doesn’t know what she is doing. I worry that Sofia might resent Anita, remind her that Anita will be pitiful if resented by Sofia.

“It’s the season of cough and cold here, I had a momentary fever. I have recovered and, thanks to God, am well now. It’s truly cold in Madrid … I don’t want to spend another winter here, I should go back there or at least move to Barcelona …

“Yhalik mo ako kina Sofia at Anita: magandang pasko sa inyong lahat. (Kiss Sofia and Anita for me: Merry Christmas to all.)”


The next year, Plaridel’s letter was written on Christmas day, Dec. 25, 1890, and opened by acknowledging the last letter received from Tsanay, whose date he could not recall because he had misplaced the letter. He is thankful that his family is well and that he laughed when he remembered Anita’s white lies. He asked that Anita remember all her reports to Plaridel, promising that he would look into all these when he returned home. Plaridel even advised Anita to write everything down in a small notebook so she won’t forget. Like an echo of the letter a year earlier, Plaridel wrote:

“Today is Christmas [here] and I can imagine your joy there. I am not so sorrowful this Christmas because the past year has had many people bedridden due to illness. Weather is fine, winter cold is bearable. Last night, we had a party with Rizal and other expatriate Filipinos, we ate with our hands using the left hand as a plate to hold our food, and the right to feed ourselves with. We had rice, turkey, lechon with [liver] sauce like that back home because the one who cooked all these was a Filipino. We parted ways at 5 in the morning. I am exhausted and spent. This is all for now. Kiss Sofia and Anita for me, regards to everyone.”


On Dec. 23, 1891, he narrated how his roomate Eduardo Lete had a persistent stomachache diagnosed as “rayuma.” In pain, Lete exlaimed: “Ay! Buntis na yata ako. (I must be pregnant!)” That gave Plaridel and Mariano Ponce reason to laugh out loud. Plaridel’s Christmas letters are not historically important but are far from trivial because they resonate with expatriate Filipinos today, wishing they were home at Christmas.


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TAGS: Christmas, History, letters

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