A Filipino Christmas: Family Seen and Unseen

Leche Flan

“Why do Filipinos send Christmas cards to the dead?” I asked my mother. She was doing the daily crossword puzzle in my kitchen, just before Thanksgiving.

“What?” She drew her brows together, kept her eyes on the crossword. “We don’t.”

“Sure you do. You always sent Lola a Christmas card and a birthday card. Delia too.” Lola is the Tagalog word for Grandma; mine had passed away in 1975. Delia was my sister, who we’d lost in 1991. I confess, having left home over twenty years ago, that I am no longer familiar with my mother’s postal habits, but I do remember the greeting cards, sent to the Philippines from home, or brought in-person to the cemetery and displayed for the season.

Instead of arguing further, though, my mother’s gaze shifted up, into the middle distance, and she said, “Oh! I have to remember a card for your father’s birthday next week.” My father had passed away nine months ago.

Mom went back to the crossword, never acknowledging that she’d contradicted herself. But take it from me, a half-Filipina-half-Italian acutely observant of all things fully ethnic: Filipinos send Christmas cards to the dead.

To please the living, there is festival fare. After my mother emigrated to the U.S. and got married, she got the idea that Americans celebrate Christmas with a roast goose. If Norman Rockwell could have tasted the goose as my mother roasted it, he would have done a new version of his turkey painting. For a Filipino Christmas party, he would need a bigger canvas, though. The goose would play second fiddle to the lechon, a whole roast young pig. On two or three groaning T.V. tables, you’d have baskets overflowing with golden-fried lumpia, bigger than Cuban cigars, with jewel-like bowls of sweet and sour sauce on the side. Mounds of pancit, bean thread noodles with a wealth of pork, chicken, and shrimp. For these, my mother knows how to reduce the broth until it resembles liquid amber, and tastes like everything savory, sublime and sinful you’ve ever imagined. Filipino style fruit salad, swimming in condensed milk and whipped cream, and leche flan, for which we use so many egg yolks that there’s a pitcher of whites left over for meringue.

And then there is the caroling. If you ever heard my Tito Rollie sing “O Holy Night”, you’d forget that tenors come from Ireland and Italy, and that angels are not known to originate from Davao City.

In the Philippines there is little difference between family and close friends, all people of your parents’ generation being Titas and Titos, and those of your grandparents’, Lolas and Lolos.

The thing that most stays with me about Christmas with my Filipino family is the normalcy of the trappings. Carols, stars, festive food, red sweaters (and unfortunately, on occasion, green corduroy pants to go with), midnight mass. I never knew what was underneath. I doubt any of us kids really did. I never knew, as a teenager lolling on the couch with my friends and cousins, that our Tita Dels, the family matriarch after her mother’s death, had wandered the bombed-out streets of Manila at my age, stranded there by the bad luck of beginning Normal College just before the Japanese invasion. Or that, whenever my Lola had to make overnight trips to trade for supplies at the river, Tita Del’s younger sisters, no older than eleven at the time, were left to look after my mother, age five, in a makeshift jungle refugee camp. My Lolo, meanwhile, fought with the guerrillas against Japan. Lola kept a caribou for two purposes. First, for milk. Second, as a pack animal, because she had to frequently move camp to evade the enemy scouts.

I never knew, and neither did my friends and cousins, all of whose parents had similar stories. We thought the annual Christmas party was an exercise in orbiting our parents, who hooted and jabbered while we herded around, finding things to entertain ourselves. We played with one family’s karaoke machine one year. The next year, at another home, we invented new ways to play pool with more than six people. We emptied the cabinets of board games, combined checkers with Parcheesi, Trivial Pursuit with charades. We were beautifully dressed. When we could think of nothing else to do but throw ourselves across couches in front of the T.V., the murmur of the adults’ voices would suddenly rise to shouts of laughter so shrill, we knew someone was about to cry. We would rush into the dining room, begging to know what the joke was. The adults would gape at first. Then someone would mutter something in Tagalog that made them laugh even harder. Some kind Tita might whisper an English translation of the joke, but confuse the punch line, so we would never really know what was so funny.

I realize, as I write this, that it was supposed to be my turn to host the party this year. The Titas and Titos have all “aged out,” and left it to the younger generation. It can never be the same as it was in those new days when they had all recently emigrated to the States, before us children grew up and in many cases moved away to Connecticut, to Pennsylvania, to Colorado. Those of us still in or near northern New Jersey have had a hard time taking up the tradition. Lumpia takes a long time to roll, pancit takes hours of chopping and simmering and roasting and steaming, if you want to do it right. And separating all those eggs for leche flan! It seems like such a waste, since no one will ever make meringue with the egg whites.

Catering is never quite the same. But if I at least get the lechon catered, I think I can pull something together. Supplement the roast pig with something normal, like chicken wings, green salad, ice cream sundaes, and board games. I can watch the children form the new generation. I can keep the grownups’ secrets, laugh so loud they never suspect the number of Christmas cards I’m putting aside for the cemetery. I can be the Tita.


2 thoughts on “A Filipino Christmas: Family Seen and Unseen

  1. I loved this. It made me realise just how many traditions are slowly being lost by the generation that grew up surrounded by the culture of instant or prepackaged, and where moving far from home is so easy and so common. To hear about how you continue to celebrate in your own way, so the kids can have even some idea of how it was for you growing up, is really encouraging!

  2. Wow Don; I really enjoyed reading this. To have such traditions and memories of them is great. I hope you can and do take up the “mantel” of “Tita.” These are the things I think you are supposed to treasure in life and you are fortunate to have experienced it. Thanks for sharing.

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