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Heneral Luna on Christmas

/ 05:12 AM December 09, 2015

It is not well-known that Antonio Luna, the hot-tempered general, was a chemist by profession. It is not well-known that he published scientific papers, and that if not for the Philippine wars for independence and his bloody end in Cabanatuan in 1899 at the hands of assassins, he would have made a name for himself in the history of science in the Philippines.

He was an accomplished swordsman, but few know that he was one of the best guitar players of his generation. He was the editor of the revolutionary paper La Independencia, whose writers kept so close to truth that the Malolos government threatened to censor it, particularly a writer who hid under the pseudonym “Paralitico” for Spanish articles and signed himself “Lumpo” in Tagalog articles.

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It is not well-known that Antonio Luna kept La Solidaridad, the Filipino propaganda paper in Spain, going despite the inconsistent output of Graciano Lopez-Jaena and Marcelo H. del Pilar. Once, he complained to Rizal that he had written practically all the articles in an issue of La Solidaridad! A compilation of his articles on Spain and its people was published in Madrid in 1891 under the title “Impresiones,” where he gave both his pseudonym “Taga-Ilog” and his real name. While he was of Ilocano stock, and his elder brother Juan Luna, the painter, was born in Badoc, Ilocos Norte, he was born on Calle Urbiztondo in Binondo, which explains his identification as a Tagalog, or Taga-Ilog.

While in Paris sometime in 1890, Antonio Luna wrote an article on Christmas in La Solidaridad, where he declared that he was tired of snow and the dull street serenades and carolers whose instruments and singing sounded to him like “the braying of small asses.” He related that one evening in Europe, as he left the warmth of a noche buena feast bundled up in a heavy coat to defy the winter cold, he was approached by a beggar in rags who stretched out a palm and said: “Can you spare me a centimito, sir? To buy bread for my children. We have not eaten in two days.” As he reached into his pocket, his hand was exposed but a moment to the biting cold, which made it difficult for him to find the alms. Then, handing some coins over to the poor wretch, he reflected on the spirit of Christmas: “They would call this Christmas Eve when the cold paralyzes even the hand that wishes to dispense charity.”

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To warm himself both in body and spirit, Antonio Luna’s mind raced home. He imagined himself back in the tropical Philippines “beside a shy dalaga, and we inhaled the sweetness of a garland of sampaguita that in graceful folds tries in vain to hide the virginal purity of her white breast.” The rest of his essay provides readers in the 21st century an idea of Christmas in late-19th-century Philippines:

“I seem to hear the sounds of a tuned orchestra of Sampaloc, of San Juan del Monte, of Pandacan… A family reunion during noche buena is customary. They go to church to hear midnight Mass. From church they return home and later proceed to the dance, from the dance to dinner, until, exhausted by the merriment, they sleep into the wee hours of the morning.”

Antonio Luna described the artistic faroles of different shapes, some with inscriptions like “Viva El Niño Jesus (Long Live the Child Jesus! Tonight is Christmas Eve!” These faroles were at the head of a procession surrounded by children. Following were “dalagas and bagongtaos, tatays and nanays, fastidious aunts and, at the tail end, an orchestra playing polkas of Fahrbach, Filiege, Coote (composers unfamiliar today); the waltzes of Strauss, Waldteufel, Metra; danzas by Silos, Perez, Enriquez, Kostka and Castañeda.”

He added: “Returning from church, we are impressed by the gardens of our host lighted in the Venetian fashion. From afar we can distinguish the colors of the paper lanterns—white, yellow, red—that also come in different shapes: stars, roses, marigolds, bells, cubes, fruits, fish, etc. The small lanterns that deck the branches of the trees the kamachiles and the bamboo shine like little suns on a green carpet…

“The gay dalagas rush into the house from the gardens as the dance is about to begin. On their bashful glances are sparkles of laughter, they gather their wide silk skirts with their right hand, exposing the small stockinged feet as they ascend the stairway that leads into the dance hall.

“Whoever has not felt the charm and beauty of a ball should go to the Philippines. There, to the rapid turns of a giddy waltz, amidst trains whirling in wide circles, he will feel intoxicated by happiness … holding in his arms the pliant form of a Filipina; when the gentle pressure of an arm is felt between the piña and the damp white flesh, behold the bent arm covered by wide sleeves which fall intimately, innocently over your shoulder, the sense of purity which gives rise to impulses of joy, eyes, limpid and happy… Now tell me if dances are silly or if your partner is a delicate thing that cannot be touched.”

Ah! Antonio Luna’s sexist language will make feminists howl. Then the rustle of silk continues until one of the young women is asked to play music by Beethoven, Mozart or Mendelssohn, or when she sings La Bella Filipina by Massaguer or La Sampaguita by Dolores Paterno, etc., which is greeted with applause and shouts of “Bravo!” that signal the end of the ball.

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Christmas then is so different from ours.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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