The coming of Christmas in the old hometown was announced by the land itself. The rains had ceased, the fields of living green had slowly turned to yellow, then gold. The grain had ripened and was now ready for the scythe. A coolness had also come upon the land and in the mornings, the two creeks that bracketed the town were covered with mist.
At school, the celebration of Christmas had already begun. We had scoured the nearby fields and brought to our classroom a sapling which we adorned with red papel de Japon and parol we made ourselves. The school festival was capped with exchange gifts that were readily recognizable. If they were round, they were usually apples or Sunkist oranges, luxuries to be enjoyed only in the last month of the year.
I recall three Christmas gifts I received as a child. The first was a small bar of Palmolive soap given to me by an uncle just returned from California. I never really used it. Every now and then, I would retrieve it from our wooden chest to enjoy its fragrance. I eventually gave it to my mother.
The second was a harmonica from a cousin. In two days, I had learned how to play it. I gathered five friends from the neighborhood. One played a tambourine I shaped from bottle caps, another blew on a length of bamboo -- he provided the bass rhythm -- the two others sang the Christmas carols on the harmonica. We went around the town caroling, and continued singing even when we were waved away. We never went to the same house twice, and when we had made ten centavos, we went to the town panciteria for pancit bihon, then called it a day.
MY MOST MEMORABLE Christmas gift was from my teacher, Miss Soledad Oriel, when I was in grade seven. By its shape, I suspected it was a book. I unwrapped it the moment I got home. It was, indeed, a book -- a secondhand dictionary, perhaps her very own. I brought my dictionary to school, and Miss Oriel taught me how to use it to improve my vocabulary. Run your finger down any page, she said, and if you come across a word you don’t know, use it in five different sentences and that word is yours for life.
And so, early on, I used the word "abomination" often. It was only later on that I realized that there are sentences better served with simpler words.
Fire crackers were expensive. For the New Year, I could have only two. But my friends and I did create a lot of noise, beating tin cans and pans. I also shaped a canon from bamboo, a six-foot length of the biggest and thickest variety. I hollowed it except for the last notch, above which I drilled a small hole, the size of a bottle cap. I then poured half a liter of kerosene through that hole. The bamboo is raised at 15 degrees. A flame under a bamboo heats the kerosene, which is then ignited through the hole. The first sound is usually a growl, which then grows into a loud boom as the kerosene is continually heated.
This week, as I was reminiscing about Christmas, a former college classmate, Father Pep, came to mind. I had lost track of him after I left Santo Tomas in 1949, then sometime in the late 1960s, he showed up at my bookshop.
He hadn’t changed much; he was still frail, soft-spoken, and he looked tired and shabby. I remember he was enamored with St. Francis de Assisi, and wrote poetry. He was now a priest of a poor parish in Bicol, and was in Manila to raise funds. He was also a nurse, and a teacher, teaching his flock “how to fish.” He said, “I don’t want them to be a beggar like me.”
IN REMEMBERING this dear, old classmate, I also remember Pope Francis recalling St. Francis de Assisi when he said, “how I would love a church that is poor and for the poor.” I think about the vast wealth of our churches, the elegant panoply of their bishops, their palaces and their laden tables, the communities they serve, the weddings they perform, the people they bless, the deathbeds over which they pray for the salvation of souls. Why isn’t their wealth used to build a church for our poor, invested in efforts that will help overcome rather than exacerbate our poverty, our country’s biggest challenge? It is time our churches are taxed, and their incomes revealed. Then we will know how sincere they are in the practice of the faith.
If Rome is gone as all empires must wither and die, how will we explain the longevity of the Vatican empire, its power? It was Stalin who asked, how many divisions does the Pope have? No, it is not divisions that should matter to the church, but a praetorian vanguard of quiet, dedicated, committed workers like Father Pep -- faithful, strong, and loyal workers who are in touch with the people and who, in their hearts, have built a church for the poor.
So we come to the Christmas story, how there was no room at the inn so Jesus was born in the lowliest of places and laid in a manger. And in his life, He cured the sick, restored sight to the blind, and turned water into wine. Then He drove the money lenders from the temple and declared, "I give you not peace but the sword."
He truly was a revolutionary whose creed was love. He was then reviled, betrayed, and tortured on the cross where he died, for our redemption.
First published in The Philippine Star, December 22, 2018