Monday, December 24, 2007

My Christmas nostalgia

Tomorrow is Christmas so there is that irreversible sense of anticipation. On the reverse side, there is an anticlimactic sense that the season for the merriment will soon be over. But I am no party pooper so my brain is all for the excitement that Christmas brings: the conspicuous parties, the visits with family, the over-the-top decorations and the consumption of way too much food.

Christmas will be different to everybody and in my case, celebrations has taken on different meanings over time.

the “ber” months

Filipinos love to celebrate and consider life as a series of one fiesta to the next. Christmas is notoriously celebrated early. Christmas starts when the months already sport a –ber, as in September when Christmas carols will be piped in by some enterprising stores. Even another competitively big holiday like November 1, when people flock to the cemeteries, could hardly make a break to the Christmas spirit.

Christmas is never far away. Flashback to April 2002, which in the Philippines is hot summer (and December is a cold rainy month). I was rummaging in a stall in the public market of Baguio when I saw something surprisingly familiar tucked at a corner: a traditional Christmas star lantern called parol. This was no ordinary lantern of paper, wood or plastic but the famous Pampanga capiz lantern, made of wooden and wire skeleton frame and covered with colored capiz (mother of pearl) shells. More distinguishably, this has built-in tivoli lights that chase and blink in a synchronizing dance. Of course I got a good discount as December was still 9 months away. Packing and getting it on a plane, first to Cebu and eventually to NY, was a pain though. The US Customs inspector eyed it with interest but at least now my sister has an authentic centerpiece in her apartment.

travel tip: Pack fragile items in a light box which shows the handlers what is inside. I wrapped this parol with carton that was thin, almost flimsy, clearly outlining the breakable package, so it was segregated from the heavy bulk of regular cargo.
Canon PowerShot S40, 0.5s, f/2.8, 7.1mm
Astoria, New York, the US

when we create our own parol

There is a subject for boys in Philippine grade school called Practical Arts. In this course, we were taught how to use the saw, the hammer and the paintbrush. Girls, on the other hand, were enrolled in Home Economics where they learn how to stitch, cook and clean house. (Later though in the late 80s, courses were turned coed). One of the few chores that boys and girls had to do together was making the parol. We started with paper and carton lanterns in early and graduated to fancy bamboo stars as you got older. I distinctly remember the trick to tidy up the cellophane covering the wooden frame which is to wipe the plastic lightly with water which tightens it up upon drying. When I saw this wet lantern that got rained on, I got a sense déjà vu.

phototip: Fill the frame with colors- so much like Christmas.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.008s, f/5.6, 43mm, ISO 100, -1/2 EV
Mabolo, Cebu City, Philippines


We always do our own Christmas decorations at home. One of my most vivid memories was making our own paper snowflakes by cutting patterns on folded paper. My younger brother and I did not even use colored paper, just plain white bond paper which was what we can afford. We tried to fold and store them with the intent of reusing them the next year. We never did actually but the remembrance of fun lingers to this day.

Now grownup, I agree that convenience takes precedence. Depending on your budget, one can go simple or ostentatious. Ornamentation can literally be overwhelming, especially that in most Filipino households, decorations are recycled year in and out so the collections pile up. It still gives me some serious sense of guilt to throw away decorations that have seen better days.

Canon EOS 350D, 0.006s, f/5.6, 300mm, ISO 1600, +1/3EV
classy antiqued ornamentation at the Balay na Tisa, Carcar City, Cebu, the Philippines

Christmas caroling

Music is a part of Christmas. Before the advent of the internet, there were no available lyric sheets of Christmas carols. I raided the public library – I think I was nine then – but books on Christmas songs were scant. So my siblings and I tried to record the carols played on the FM radio and playback the cassette tapes several times to catch the lyrics of our favorite tunes.

Another experience every Filipino kid is sure to pass is caroling. Singing Christmas carols in the street is a ready fund-raising venture for everyone. My parents were fairly strict and disallowed me and my siblings from joining the neighborhood daygon (the Cebuano term for caroling). It was only when I was an adult that I got to participate in a more “pro” endeavor. Yes, caroling extends to all ages and cuts all social classes.

the lights

There was a time too when Christmas lights were not disposable. We call them series in reference to its electrical configuration. As the wirings were thick and sturdy, they were a tad expensive so busted lights are just replaced the following year and many a street repairmen could earn a nice living fixing “series” during the season. Now, lights come cheap and some 50 series lights can come by for only half a dollar. Repairing them is more expensive than a brand new one. Do be careful though as quality is wanting and they may overheat and cause a nasty fire.

phototip: For fun, there are cheap “neon” ornamentation like these divine blinking necklaces which cost P20 each ($0.50). Throw them inside an empty crystal ice bucket and take some photos at relatively slow exposure speed. The colors and lights will do choreography.
Canon EOS 350D, 2.5s, f/6.3, 49mm, ISO 100
Mandaue City, Cebu, the Philippines

the Christmas tree

In the Philippines, there would hardly be any live tree. The tropics are not known for evergreens and if there were some in the highlands, wouldn’t it be environmentally egregious to cut down what is rare? Anyway, we rely on everything but the real thing. There are mangrove varieties called pagatpat whose overturned roots make up a lovely form. It was popular then to cover it with thick suds of white soap (gladfully, this is passé now). Some preferred trees made of stiff grass (are they still around?) that can come in various heights. Spray-painted or dyed in green, they do resemble the fir tree but the “leaves” were so densely packed that ornaments can only be attached outside and none in the interior. Today, plastic is the norm and as everything else does, they come from China.

When I had my first Christmas outside of the Philippines, I finally had my taste of the first real tree. It was at my sister’s apartment in New York. I even helped choose and lug the real 7 foot balsam fir- a Frasier I think- on my shoulders 2 blocks to her home. Feels different, grand even. It is a living thing, for you have to water it daily (well, actually my brother was assigned that chore and not not me!).

phototip: Play with curves to convey movement.
Canon EOS 350D, 1s, f/5, 18mm, ISO 100
ornaments in a real Christmas tree, Astoria, Queens, New York, the US

the gifts

So they say that Christmas are for kids and in us, there is always that inner child wanting to come out of our cynical hardened shells. We probably may no longer share that giddy exhilaration of opening what’s inside a Christmas gift but hopefully, we can empathize in the joy of gift giving. Every year, we dig a deep financial hole for ourselves as we overspend for gifts for almost everyone - for our peers, family, friends or fkinugos or godchildren. I rather still like the tradition of opening any gift I receive on Christmas day. I may cheat and take a peek what’s inside but tearing open the packages on the 25th unleashes a primal joy that only that day can deliver.

Maybe this is what I felt in the photo below. There is something universal in the boy's wonderment. Oblivious to the chaotic shoppers around him, he stood transfixed to the speeding toy train. Neither his playful sister nor his parents had an easy time ungluing him from the frolic before him. To his eyes, this was the only world at that very instant. Maybe that is what Christmas joy should be.

phototip: Shooting through a glass is tricky because of glare. Keep your lens as close to the glass as much as possible to keep off stray light.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.25s, f/5.6, 55mm, ISO 400, -1/32EV, uncropped
at the MTA train exhibition at the Grand Central Station, Manhattan, New York, the US

Simbang gabi and the belen

There is one Filipino Christmas tradition that I am too lazy to join as an adult- the Simbang Gabi. It is that early 4AM novena mass leading to Christmas eve. I am sure I was dragged to attend some when I was a kid. Maybe I will resume the tradition when I will have a family of my own, I don’t know. What I am certain is that my younger brother is always quite up to the challenge, probably because he celebrates his birthday when the Simbang Gabi starts on December 16. (In the Philippines, you must hear mass when it is your birthday).

Christmas Day is a holy day of obligation. For Filipinos, Christmas is the biggest religious celebration (not Easter which orthodoxically should be) so religious services are said the whole day as if it were Sunday. And churches would be fully decked too. Featured most prominently would be the Christmas creche which we call the belen. The nativity scene is the centerpiece and as tradition calls, Filipino kids will often line up to kiss the baby Jesus.

Canon EOS 350D, 0.025s, f/4.5, 25mm, ISO 800
inside the Most Precious Blood Church, Astoria, Queens, New York, the US

the family

Traditions don’t just come and go. They evolve as you make sense of their worth. For five years, I have been celebrating Christmas in New York. My sister lives there and my brother always comes over from wherever he is, then in Texas, now in Seattle. My mom and I would then trek from Cebu to the wintry Big Apple to be together as families always should at this time of the year.

Things have changed. I got married this year and since she’s expecting, we cannot travel. Nonetheless, I still cherish the bond that ties us together. As platitudes go, Christmas resides in the heart and we still have many Christmases to share together in the future.

Photo tip: Incorporate reflections on the glass in the picture.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.017s, f/5.6, 55mm, ISO 1600, -1/2EV
window display at Teuscher Chocolates, 25 E 61st St, New York, the US

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