Seated in the veranda of my home in Naga City on a Saturday afternoon, poring over a required reading for sixth grade English class, I was suddenly interrupted by jovial voices by the staircase. Girls in bright red and pink apparel, about to start a song and dance routine to the accompaniment of two guitars. Pastoras-a-belen, they were called, carolers that livened up their holiday greetings with delightfully choreographed movements. They went from house to house in the neighborhood, expecting to receive money for their performance. My reading paled in comparison to this spectacular random showing. I loved the pastoras. Maybe, I secretly wanted to be one of them.
Interestingly, wherever they went, they drew a following. Some children and adults in the neighborhood would follow them around, turning this small group of costumed performers into pied pipers with a long tail of eager supporters, like a handy audience whose numbers magnified as the troupe advanced to the next house, and the next house. I loved the pastoras, but I never joined the trailing mass of supporters on the ground. I did, however, follow them with my gaze to as far as I could see – at times, tiptoeing on the top step of the staircase to watch the dancers’ bobbing heads as they whirled, swayed and bowed.
Not even an hour passed after the dancers left the neighborhood to trudge to the next community, when came groups of boys and girls, belting out carols to greet people in the homes, familiar songs that often, I was tempted to sing along while watching and listening. After a few minutes of their singing, it was customary for the homeowner to dole them some coins. It had to be cash. Food substitute was almost always refused. These young carolers were picky. While bringing the holiday cheer was the noble intent, money was these carolers’ goal. Mama and Papa often asked me to go down the stairs and hand the coins to the kids. Just as happy was I in giving the coins as the kids were in receiving them. I sometimes wondered, why did it have to be coins – not bills, of course not checks, and definitely, not food! Papa and Mama kept a collection of coins in a large glass bottle for the young carolers. When the bottle filled up, I thought, Christmas was near.
Christmas of my early youth often was a big event with my grandparents’ family. Lolo (Grandpa) had passed then, so it was Lola that I remember presiding over the gathering, seated quietly and contentedly in the biggest armchair in the living room, smiling and partaking happily in the gaiety, but never really talking – except to remind the help – put the food on the table. At times, she would gesture for me to approach her, would slip her frail hand inside her pocket to draw out three pesos just for me. In my elementary years, that was a windfall! My Lola had soft big beautiful eyes and a captivating smile that made me think she was a much-sought beauty or some kind of a beauty queen in her maiden years. Mama, years before she passed, used to tell me that I look much like Lola, but I think my Lola was much more beautiful. Well, during our Christmas get-togethers, Lola was the matriarch surveying all the goings-on and making sure, quietly that is, that everything went smoothly, including the rowdy distribution of gifts to the children. We, the children, were noisy and giddy with pure delight at every gift handed to us, like pens, stationery paper, intricate plastic jewelry boxes, embroidered handkerchiefs, chocolate bars, or a few pesos in colored envelopes. And the children always compared gifts; the scrambling and exchanging made the happy chaos.
One of the best food I remember from the Christmas gatherings in my Lola’s house, was hot sweetened ginger tea with small rice flour dumplings, simple, yummy and spicy with a zing. I am considering replicating that for my Dec. 24th Christmas party at home.
Talking about the gift exchange activity at this December party – I expect it to be as boisterous and as delightfully anxious as the gift exchange of my youth. Some 28 adults and young ones will scramble over $10 gifts good for up to three steals in the game. We’ve played this before at Christmas parties in other homes, and the game has always been civilized chaos, just like the way it was in the gift exchange of my youth at Christmases so long ago.
And yes – very much the same — the carols we sing, the bright, colorful décor we put up, the abundance of food we enjoy, and the warm camaraderie, friendships and relationships we are so blessed with – all in joyful celebration of Mary’s birth of the baby Jesus.