Round Rock, Texas
The gaggle of scruffy, mostly barefoot kids’ voices soar above the din of jeepney horns a-honking, “Kasadya ning takna-a…” (This is such a merry time…)and “We wish you a Merry Christmas…” to the accompaniment of soda pop bottle caps strung through a wire hoop like a tambourine. At the end of the song, each one gets a shiny coin, or the group gets a peso bill if there is a designated cashier. Then they do the finale, “Thank you, thank you,” and depending on how generous, or un-generous you were, could end this way, “ang babarat ninyo, thank you!” (You are all cheapskates.)
I miss the carolers who walk from house to house – whether the likes of the above, or the more formal groups who come into your home on their appointed time printed on the envelope they sent you days before, and fill your home with songs.
I miss this gift of songs!
I encouraged my three little girls to carol around our neighborhood with their neighbor friends. We would make a list of the names we think would welcome them. I, or one of our helpers, would of course, keep a close watch over them. Some nights, they would come home excited! Some nights, they came home dejected. So I decided, as a rule, that ours would always be the last stop for the group. And of course, we made it worth their while!
The celebration is ushered in by the “ber” months, starting from September to December, and even long into January, for “Pit Senyor!” the big celebration of Sinulog, the Feast of the Infant Jesus. Christmas carols take over the airwaves, blaring from jeepneys, and inside malls and stores.
Christmas officially starts on December 16, and the Simbang Gabi, the dawn masses for nine days before Christmas. The highlight of this early morning ritual for me, was, I’m sorry to admit, not so much for the spiritual, as much as for the gastronomic experience that follows. Outside the Church would be wafting in the air, the enticing, irresistable aroma of “sikwate” (thick, hot cocoa) and “puto bumbong,” purple, “tapul” sticky rice, steamed in bamboo tubes, served with butter or margarine on top, and grated coconut and muscovado sugar on the side.
Or these and more, are usually waiting for you too when you get home. Also add to the mix, the Cebuano puto – sticky rice steamed with ginger, coconut cream, a pinch of salt and sugar, wrapped in banana leaf, usually shaped in a triangle. I would pour my sikwate all over the puto – aah, my tastebuds ascend to gastronomical heaven!
New Year’s Day, is another story in itself. The preparation leading to it is a big production. Central to it is the table for the “Media Noche,” as we call the midnight meal the family shares as we welcome the New Year. The center piece would be, of course, the thirteen, round fruits. You would like to start getting this together earlier, because the closer you get to the eve, the rarer, and more expensive they become. And you don’t want to have just ten, or eleven, or twelve – it has to be thirteen! And only round fruits! Next, you have to have sweet, sticky food, preferably round.
Then the thirteen grapes for each member of the family, to be consumed by each one all at once at the stroke of midnight! Quite a feat, huh? Oh, and no chicken dish must be served. Pork is fine.
Now the attire is another thing – you must wear polka dots, at least somewhere on your body, visible or not. At midnight, your pockets must have coins to jingle, wallets and purses must have bills in them, windows, doors, drawers, must all be open when midnight comes, to let good luck and prosperity in. And to drive away the evil and negative spirits, we make a lot of noise with anything – horns, pots and pans, honk car horns, and of course – fireworks!
The firecrackers and fireworks are something else! Bordering on the dangerous, sometimes fatal. Hospital emergency rooms go into overdrive. This can go on and on into the wee hours of the morning. I remember the sight, and sound, and the smell of it! When everything died down, the smoke and smell of gunpowder made the neighborhood feel like a war zone. I remember we had to put earplugs on my baby grandson who was home for a visit – poor baby.
Maybe “homesick” is not the right word for what I feel when this season comes around. Because I am, truly “Home” now – with my children and grandchildren.
So when we gather on New Year’s Eve for our Media Noche, we will have our thirteen fruits, our thirteen grapes, wearing our polkadots, jingling coins in our pockets, and marrying our traditions with the west, we will have ham, and “biko” or “sapin-sapin” and toast the New Year in with red wine while we do the countdown, waiting for the ball to drop in New York City, via internet.
HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYONE! And may yours be filled with bountiful joy and blessings!