Iloilo circa 1955, the Days before Christmas

I am sure other people today, both in the Philippines and in the U.S., have a store of Christmas and New Year memories from which they re-create the celebration of these early winter holidays year after year. I do.

Years after I stopped putting up the trappings for Christmas—Yule tree, presents under the tree, Christmas carols streaming in the background as I cooked festive media noche fare, twinkling lights, candles, evergreen boughs, multicolored ribbons, Christmas cards and Christmas holiday stamps— I continue to treasure those childhood memories of perhaps the most nostalgic holiday in the Christian world!

Christmas when I was growing up still centered around church services. Starting December 17, for a novena of nine mornings before Christmas, people woke up to the pealing of church bells inviting them to aguinaldo, missa de gallo, mass of the rooster’s crow. This was traditionally at four in the morning when children were still wrapped in sleep and going out into the chill Philippine air would discourage anyone. But got up we did, eyes still half closed and bleary, to walk the half hour to church.

Church for me then was the wooden structure with a concrete triangular façade that was lit in multi-colored lights for the Christmas holiday season. (On semana santa, the lights were severely plain white.) I miss that façade, those lights. For me they represent a bygone era,  part of Christmas that felt distinctly Filipino—sentimental, a tad melodramatic, but oh so sweet when recalled today in our more high-technology times.

My mother raised us in the Aglipay church, officially called the Iglesia Filipina Independiente or IFI. (When the church became closely allied with the Philippine Episcopal Church in the 1960s and 1970s, it became known as the Philippine Independent Church or PIC, a name that didn’t have the élan or mystique of the Spanish name. It was during Spanish times that the church was born and it partook of the historical period, a feature of the native church the younger laity and priests are re-inventing today, more power to them!) Monsignor Aglipay after whom the church was familiarly called was the first bishop of the group that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church as part of the Filipinos’ struggle for independence from the Spanish.

After two blocks we would turn the corner at the town plaza and suddenly there at the end of the short street was the candy-lit church. It barely clung to the edge of the plaza, the much bigger, more imposing Roman Catholic Church sitting right smack in the center facing the square.

Walking to this tiny wooden church beside the behemoth mainstream church was a potent shaping influence on me. From then on I aligned myself with the Davids of the world, straddling the mainstream and my own idiosyncratic choices, whether social, political, religious, philosophical or just personal.

I have always felt the outsider, difficult stereotyping but one that encouraged out-of-the-box thinking. After decades of living as one kind of minority or another I feel comfortable, even empowered, here in my own little corner of the world!

At Sunday mass in late November and the first three weeks of December, a period Catholic tradition called Advent (looking to the coming of the new Messiah), altar vestments were purple but on the early morning novena masses the altar was decked in white. The Redeemer had already arrived at the missa de gallo.

Those little touches of liturgical significance was another shaping influence on me, probably contributing to my interest in depth psychology after medical school, later Jungian psychology and the works on mythology by Joseph Campbell. Religions became for me systems of metaphor that needed to be explored for their store of accumulated wisdom, not with reason alone but with imagination, with intuition and the more mystical functions of consciousness.

After mass there often were vendors of snacks strategically positioned outside the church, in front of the plaza or along Jereos Street, to catch the exiting congregation. Rice cakes with coconut toppings (bibingka) and ibus and various suman delicacies tempted the children and parents doted as they were able to dote. After all they too had been starry-eyed children and Christmas was, still is, for children of all ages.

Nowadays, here in America, we can buy Americanized versions of these Filipino sweets (with twice more butter, more coconut, bigger portions, etc) but none can compare with those childhood treats. I can still see the vendors with their offerings, all lit in the glorious yellow light of kerosene lamps even as dawn was breaking in the sky above.

Back home we dove back under the mosquito nets and under the blankets. School was just a couple of hours away and sleeping a little longer felt delicious. We’d done our duty and enjoyed it too, a preview of Christmas that would manifest in its fullness on Christmas Eve

About orlando gustilo

Digital content producer, photographer, writer.
This entry was posted in Christianity, culture, Filipino, Filipino cuisine, Food, History, memoirs, psychology, religion. Bookmark the permalink.

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