Looking Back

Christmas on the eve of the Philippine Revolution

/ 09:44 PM December 26, 2013

Christmas gifts have been opened, the sweets digested and the cholesterol delights of  noche  buena  are clogging our arteries—yet many Filipinos are already looking forward to the next feast,  media  noche, to bid goodbye to the old year and greet the new one with hope. The holidays from Christmas to New Year’s remind us of that wonderful Spanish proverb: “How beautiful it is to do nothing, and to rest afterwards.” [¡Qué bueno es no hacer nada y luego descansar!].

What was Christmas like on the eve of the Philippine Revolution? One primary source would be James Earle Stevens’ “Yesterdays in the Philippines” (New York, 1898) that provided interested American readers with a lively description of the overseas colony that they won after the Spanish-American War. Stevens arrived in Manila in time for the 1893 Christmas and New Year celebrations. Employed by Peabody and Co., a firm that traded in Philippine hemp that then supplied an international demand for cordage, he stayed two years during which time he traveled a lot outside Manila before the situation got complicated in 1896. In his introduction, he declared that the United States did not need an overseas colony because it was better off looking after its own territory than taking up the administration of an archipelago half the world away. Unfortunately for us, his was a voice in the wilderness, and the Philippines after 400 years in the convent as the cliché goes spent the next 50 years in Hollywood.


Stevens didn’t expect much for the Christmas Eve table in Manila and was surprised to find out that in terms of gastronomic goodies the so-called Pearl of the Orient or Venice of the East was very cosmopolitan. Aside from the US food he was used to, the Philippines offered a mix of East and West: Filipino, Chinese, Spanish and even French food could be had in Manila if you knew where to go. Escolta, the main shopping street, had shops just like he knew from Washington or Broadway. A keen observer, Stevens left nothing out in his book down to the “unsavoury odors of people who like garlic and don’t take baths.” He first stayed at the Hotel de Oriente to sleep but went out to eat and there found a club down the road where he spent Christmas Eve described as follows:

“Our Christmas dinner at the club has just ended and from the bill of fare one would never suspect he was not at the Waldorf or Parker House. Long punkahs swung to and fro over the big tables, small serving boys in bare feet rushed hither and thither with meat and drink, corks popped, the smart breeze blew jokes about, and everyone unbent.


“Soups, fish, joints, entrees… hors d’oeuvres, mince pies, plum puddings, and all the delicacies to be found in cooler climes had their turn, as did a variety of liquid courses. Singing, speeches, and music followed the more material things, and everyone was requested to take some part in the performance. By the time the show was over the piano was dead-beat and everybody hoarse from singing by the wrong method.”

They did not have any shopping malls then but there were many shops in Escolta and Rosario streets outside Intramuros. Stevens went out to buy photographic supplies and was directed to the “Botica Inglesa” which turned out to be more than a pharmacy because Stevens wrote: “Here it is possible to buy anything from a glass of soda to a full-fledged lawn-mower, including all the intermediates that reach from tooth-brushes to photographic cameras.” Then he described the “chit” system where one bought on credit. Then as now, in neighborhood sari-sari stores where people know each other, it is possible to bring home food or condiments by adding items to a list—“i-lista mo na muna”—for payment later. When Stevens went shopping in Manila he realized that the currency in use were Mexican silver dollars that were too heavy to carry about in huge quantities in a shirt pocket. So Stevens could go to any store and sign an “I. O. U.” that was then consolidated and a collector came to call at the end of the month. Today we have credit cards that have sunk many people in debt because they do not feel like they have spent anything. If you use cash, spending stops when the wallet is empty, but with plastic you can spend a lot and get hit when your monthly bill comes round.

In Stevens’ day they paid their credit notes in cash, in heavy Mexican dollar coins. Collectors went round accompanied by cargadores with wheelbarrows. This made me wonder when we started to use armed security and armored cars. Collectors counted the money first then they bit on the coins or dropped these on the floor to listen for the sound of lead or silver that distinguished the genuine from the fake coins. Today we pay in cash at a Bayad Center or bank; we can also pay online where no physical money is exchanged. Once the Philippines used money that was worth its weight in physical gold, silver or copper coins, then we switched to paper money which makes me wonder: When does a piece of paper become money or why do we value a near worthless piece of paper as money? To complicate matters, we can pay with credit cards, ATM cards or even on the Internet where no physical money changes hands. “Yesterdays in the Philippines” is an apt title for Stevens’ book because reading it is like going to a foreign country; they did things differently then.

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TAGS: Christmas, History, James Earle Stevens, Philippine Revolution
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