My hometown Baras as seen from a helicopter after Typhoon Rolly. (Photo: Jeff Canoy)
I turn 72 on Dec. 30. That means I have spent the same number of years enjoying — nay, surviving — the Yuletide season.
Sadly, I am not the kind of person who looks forward to the Christmas holidays with glee, and with shopping malls in mind.
I find it difficult surviving Christmas in the big city, and not just because of the horrendous traffic. I am too old for Baby Shark, too arthritic for musical chairs, and too old-school to appreciate endless gyrations both in noontime TV shows and in Christmas parties.
In the barangay where I live, I always miss the Christmas cash gift for senior citizens. My senior ID is not updated and has to be converted into a privilege card so I can qualify. On the day I wanted to upgrade it at City Hall, there were three press conferences to cover and once again I missed the cash gift for the year.
I don’t regret it much, because my kind of Christmas (like my birthday) is a private affair and spent quietly with my grandchildren.
In Baras, Catanduanes, where I was born, I remember the cagharong in which the townsfolk take turns playing the roles of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph. They go from house to house looking for the biblical room at the inn, and in the process they receive cash gifts and local delicacies.
I loved the sights and sounds of the children singing and dancing to Pastores sa Belen in my hometown. (But not the usual pitiful sound of pigs and goats crying for dear life and later cooked into favorite holiday dishes.) I remember the old Baras church where I used to serve as an altar boy. I loved the sound of the local chorus rehearsing for the sung Mass on Christmas Eve. I suppose I first heard my Handel music (“The Messiah”) during the Mass, with the chorus singing excerpts from oratorios.
I don’t recall visiting the houses of my godparents on Christmas Day in my youth. Perhaps I did once or twice, but since that wasn’t my idea of Christmas early in my life, I avoided it. When I was a boy, Christmas was when we got a free haircut from our maternal granduncle who had a barbershop near the old capitol.
In bygone days, Christmas for me was enjoying the aroma of newly baked bread emanating from the only bakery in Baras, which was owned by Tang Kua. To this day, I like the smell of bread in city bakeries, although most of them have gone high-tech.
Now when I catch a whiff of newly baked pan de sal in my neighborhood, I recall the Christmases of long ago with my uncle and aunt playing Mary and Joseph and walking toward the homes of generous neighbors.
Before I left for Manila for my college studies, Christmas was spent in a small dwelling place adjacent to a big house where the landlady lived. It was near the barangay chapel which was always full of pious Viracnons praying novenas to assorted saints.
I remember the Misa de Gallo at the Virac Cathedral and spending time at the town plaza. I was probably a loner then as I am today.
I do remember the food at Christmas time. My mother would spend sleepless nights cooking suman latik and balisongsong, local versions of rice cake. My Christmases on the island revolved around these delicacies.
I also remember the proper Christmas meal we had while visiting my uncle Marino Arcilla in Barrio Salvacion. Tio Marino’s house was always spick and span. The floors were shiny, and every movement in the house reflected good manners observed to the hilt. He was a co-employee of my mother in the local Department of Social Welfare and Development, and indeed that’s where I saw a lot of case-study reports on the financially handicapped island residents. At the time, it did not yet occur to me that my family was one of them. Reading those case studies gave me a lesson on how to do family profiles when I turned to journalism as a job.
I don’t know how Catanduanes observes Christmas with the onset of the cyberage. The sure thing is that the residents now greet each other by text, chat on Facebook, watch movies on Netflix, and try out apps for new games.
The Christmas I want to remember was marked by quiet early-morning walks to the church and generous servings of suman latik that I cannot have enough of even to this day.
For this country bumpkin in the city, Christmas Day on the island still yields good memories, good vibes and good tidings.