Friday, December 20, 2013

Pilipinas Christmas 2013

When we left Manila for the old hometown on Monday, 16th of December, people were on their way to church for the first simbang gabi, which is not really an evening mass but properly the misa de gallo when the roosters crow at dawn. On our way back early evening, we passed by churches celebrating truly simbang gabi probably for those who failed to join the early morning service.  Thus began the traditional nine-day devotional masses to culminate with what used to be the midnight mass of Christmas eve.

History tells us that the dawn masses were set up during the Spanish colonial times for the farmers who began toiling the croplands before sunrise.  When we were young in the province, getting up early for the mass was one great effort; the joy came when we went around town with the church choir serenading parish folks with local carols and Spanish villancicos after the mass.  As kid, our mother enticed us to go with them to the midnight mass so that we can see the “walking star,” actually a big lighted five-pointed star parol rolling down the rope from the choir loft to the belen at one side of the altar with all the church lights turned off.  Our father who was not a churchgoer attended the dawn masses though before boarding the commuter bus to his work at the U.S. naval base in Subic an hour away. 

We learned parol making when we were in primary school using bamboo strips to form the star, covering this with Japanese paper or colored cellophane, and from two star tips, we hang paper “tails”. The last time we fashioned star parols was at the Manila Center on Mission St. in San Francisco, CA for the first Parol Lantern Festival there in December 2003.

Through the years, the parol has morphed from the five-point pattern to various decorative structures associated with Christmas.  Houses, stores, town and city halls, and town and city streets brighten up with lighted parols in the evening. We treasured a smaller version of the San Fernando, Pampanga parol for several seasons until the colored wrapping started to fade. Of course, San Fernando glows with giant lanterns skilfully crafted by barangay artisans to dazzle spectators with a display of rhythmic changing of lighted colorful patterns. 

As an alumnus of the University of the Philippines, one knows that Christmas vacation is coming when a big white star parol glows behind the Oblation in the Diliman campus in the evening. The buzz starts for the much-awaited lantern parade held during the last week of classes when the faculty and students of different colleges and members of campus organizations carry lanterns that reflect the year's theme.  This year, it was “Maalab na Serbisyo Publiko ng Mapagkalingang Kampus” dedicated to the victims of typhoon Yolanda.  The lanterns were made of relief goods like T-shirts, slippers, canned goods, etc. all of which were collected for eventual distribution in the calamity areas. The College of Fine Arts contingent do not compete for 'bests' of several categories, they simply provide the climax of the event.  This year their lanterns were reflective of the cultural color of various indigenous peoples of the country.  

A College of Fine Arts lantern: a mythical bird.

One UP Diliman annual tradition we have missed since after graduation is the free annual Handel’s Messiah concert at the university theatre.  A good friend saved us from the no-ticket line last week when she came out of the theatre with a spare seating ticket.  It was labelled “a Christmas benefit concert for the calamity victims” and had the students who were relocated from the Tacloban campus to Diliman as special guests.  

For the first time, choral groups from Diliman, UP Manila and UP Los Baños came together for the Messian concert.  There were 270 voices all in all.  They did a choral rendition of “Kilos, Iskolar”, a hymn composed by Vernie de la Peña and lyrics by poet Reuel Aguila, which calls UP students and alumni to help rehabilitate the nation after the calamities.

We had an incidental Christmas treat at the Archdiocesan Archives in Intramuros before the last weekend.  It was the launching of the annual display of the belen collection of Fr. Genaro Diwa.  The manger scenes on exhibit vary in size and style, and definitely, they are far from the depiction done by St. Francis of Assisi who did the first one with a live ox and ass in Greccio in 1223. 

The Filipino belens are eye-catching in terms of costumes and interpretations.  One incorporates the Three Kings in Moro, Igorot and barong tagalog costumes.  Another has visitors around the manger representing various indigenous groups.  Another belen had us chuckling because there’s a group making lechon beside the manger scene.

The last one reminds that Philippine Christmas is one seasonal food trip for families and clans.  It is not unusual, for example, to see families in some communities coming out of the church during dawn masses to head straight for stalls selling hot bibingka (rice cakes) or puto bumbong for a breakfast of native fare.  Then comes the first feast, which is the noche buena held after the midnight mass of Christmas eve.  The big one is on Christmas Day when families in grand happy reunion gather around a festive lunch with a lechon as centerpiece usually.

One would think that the long Pilipinas Christmas that starts with the first –ber month of the year, September, ends on Christmas Day.  To the religious, it still extends to the feast of the Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas, according to the popular song, which for many years was fixed on the 6th of January.  Until now, three men of one barangay in our town costumed as the Three Kings Melchor, Gaspar and Baltazar lead the parade highlighting their fiesta on this day.

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