I don't get it.
Is it because --- really --- there are much fewer Christmas lights I see at night that I feel this isn't December enough? Or there seems to be such a general dearth of Yuletide decor in various establishments that you barely feel that we are right smack in the doorway of Jingle Bell Land?
You know what made it worse? The heat. Disyembre na ba?! How can anyone convince me it is December when I am experiencing such humidity. This isn't December! This is something like late April or early May.
Worse yet, if it is not humidity you are dealing with --- then it must be rainfall. You look outside and see gray skies, impersonating some accident that became a season of the year alternating with grueling heat. That's why I don't get it.
I remember years ago when I was wearing cardigans and sweatshirts even at home here in the south because the air was so deliciously cold. I remember that starting the last week of November until about the first week of February I did not find any use for air conditioning at night or in the very late afternoons.
I guess that is global warming for you. Or at least that would convince the few remaining big time capitalists that the polar caps are melting and that whole shtick in Happy Feet 2 is based on fact and not merely the fancy of animated dancing Emperor Penguins. But let us not go into that. We are still talking about the weather and why this doesn't feel like Christmas at all despite the token Christmas carols you hear once in a while from the radio or the pipe-in music of stores and malls.
And even hearing Christmas songs becomes suspect. I am bothered to hear I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus in September especially in a mall. This is because I know that this is not about the joys of the coming Yuletide season. It is about cajoling the shopper to bring out his wallet and start that much dreaded buying spree. Even for confirmed shopaholics, Christmas can still be a drag --- or an ordeal.
It is when you have to reckon with the amount of money you have to spend to complete your Christmas list, then the season has turned more into an obstacle than an event to anticipate. After wrapping all the gifts --- special and even obligatory --- sincere or done out of politeness --- you realize the amount of financial depletion you have encountered all for the sake of Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Mankind.
Now I get myself thinking: when was the last time I really felt Christmas?
When was the year of most recent memory when I was actually excited about the approaching season and not reacting to pressures that accompany the holidays?
When was the latest time that I actually enjoyed Christmas --- despite the unforgivable traffic everywhere and anywhere, the escalating expenses because of the endless shopping?
Do I really, really enjoy those obligatory Christmas parties that destroy every existing methods of dieting and test your will power in practicing weight control?
Do I really enjoy playing Kris Kringle and receiving an Angry Bird key chain for an exchange gift? I confess: I got it all wrong. It is the thought that counts and not the gift or its price.
A good friend of mine said that Christmas is only for children.
He was insistent that Christmas was made for children --- who are rewarded at a specific time of the year when they can be showered with all the toys and gifts that they have longed for. Christmas is, after all, a celebration of Divine Birth --- and it is only appropriate that this should be dedicated to the innocent. God knows how many more years you will bask on this beautiful naivete before you outgrow toys and develop needs far greater and more complex.
Then somebody said that Christmas is really about family.
That also made a lot of sense. Christmas in Manila is when all roads to the international airports get clogged up with the returning overseas workers, yearning to come home and share their noche buena with their families. There is a lot of hugging, kissing, crying ... very much like the campaign launched by Coca-Cola. Christmas is not only for family reunions but for getting together for whatever reason whatsoever.
Aside from the traditional Filipino parol, a new symbol of Disyembre sa Pinas is the balikbayan box. This is the box that contains all the pasalubongs and aguinaldos that our overseas relatives bring home to fill the empty spaces around the Christmas trees.
But I completely agree that Christmas should always be about people --- not only relatives (who you cannot choose) but friends and those who appear in our lives out of circumstance. About people who just had to be around throughout the year that passed --- whether out of choice or out of chance.
It is about office mates who make fools of themselves in Christmas parties singing their favorite karaoke pieces or dancing to the latest and most popular tunes. It is about feeling euphoric about the thirteenth month salary and the company bonus.
Christmas is a lot of things to all of us. But for me --- Christmas is about food.
I am not talking about the sudden proliferation of a) fruit cakes b) rum cakes c) food for the gods d) chocolate chip cookies or whatever concoction sweet, salty or sour that can come out of the kitchen. If there is one thing about Christmas that I remember about my youth, then it is my grandmother's macaroni recipe that she incorporates with chorizo de bilbao or my mother slaving for hours in the kitchen deboning chicken for her Galantina while also steaming the embutido. It is watching both my Mama and Lola dealing with their own Jamon Tsina, as they iron brown sugar on the slap of dried pork leg boiling in pineapple sauce.
Or that very vivid picture of my Mama grinding yam in order to make halayang ube, then later on exerting too much effort stirring the pasty root with butter and condensed milk until it reaches the right density. I remember her promising that this would be the last year she would be cooking halayang ube because she was getting too old to do all the stirring ... which she would not allow anyone else to do because the outcome of the dessert will be different. To this day I still do not understand why she insisted on doing this herself.
As I am writing this, I suddenly gain a perfect recollection of our old kitchen ... and remember the smell from that little corner at the back of the house where the ladies of the house concoct their annual Christmas feasts.
That is the Christmas that I remember. That is the Christmas that I miss.
Now that my grandmother is gone --- and my Mom will be 99 years old this Christmas (which happens to also be her birthday), the home cooked meals for Noche Buena are no longer there. Having been deprived of culinary talents like some of my friends, my mother and grandmother's secret recipes have not been passed on as part of family tradition. For the past so many years, Christmas has ceased to be what I remembered ... but something I had to deal with each year.
And maybe that is why, especially this year, I am still trying to go deep into my heart to find the Christmas of my youth. Yes, my friend was right. Christmas is really for children. Perhaps I am having such difficulty feeling it because somewhere along the way, I gave up being that child who used to really feel joy singing Christmas tunes.
Just last week, I put up my Christmas tree. I have also done most of my Christmas shopping refusing to be caught in that frantic rush in stores. I have asked my assistants to wrap the presents. Now it is only a matter of deciding when I can feel Christmas all over again.