Thursday, December 31, 2009

Welcome Joy!

"Joy is a heart full and a mind purified by gratitude."
-- Marietta McCarty
Posted by Picasa

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Unsung Hero of Christmas

I'm in a sentimental, brooding kind of mood. It's probably a Christmas hang-over. Too much food, too much socializing, too much merriment gets to me. So I need to withdraw every now and again.

Tonight as I let myself wallow, I catch a glimpse of St. Joseph by the creche that sits on top of our hall table. I think about how he took it all --- knocking on doors for a room, preparing a quasi-crib for his firstborn, standing by his wife as shepherds, then noble men from the East come to visit, fleeing to Egypt to save his family --- when he simply could have walked away the minute he heard of the Blessed Mother's predicament. Clearly, God could not have chosen a better man to be the father of His Son.

I let myself think about it some more. If St. Joseph had not heeded the angel's message to marry his fiancee, she could have been stoned to death. Had he not acted promptly to flee to Egypt, Jesus would have been one of the innocent boys killed by Herod's men. Then where would we all be without Christmas and without a Saviour?

I look at St. Joseph once more, head bowed towards his wife and Child. I see him in a new light. He wants us to focus on The Blessed Mother and The Baby Jesus even as he obviously plays a big role in the whole Nativity Story. In his hand, he holds a staff, a symbol of protection and guidance. The Mother and Child are safe because of him. And as a consequence, we too have been saved.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Day After Christmas

It is half past one in the morning of December 26 and I am exhausted but sleep eludes me. The past week went by in a blur. The last clear memory I have is going to the first day of pre-dawn mass. I remember getting sick a few days after that and staying home in bed while the hours which should've been spent for last-minute shopping were used sleeping. I vaguely recall finally having the energy to shop, without a list, and managing to do it with a seven-year-old who kept dropping hints about wanting a Baby Alive...then, the weekend before Christmas, being momentarily ecstatic discovering some nice plain wrapping paper, a few red mugs, lovely gift tags, and checkered ribbon at ten in the evening when my husband agreed to drive me to the mall I had been dreading to go to for fear of a stampede. Four days before Christmas or was it three, while I am gaining momentum, my two-year old gets tonsillitis so I decide to stay home with him instead of ticking off the hundred and one things on the list I finally got to do the night before. (The fact that I am confused about my past and present tenses and have run-on sentences as I write this is proof that everything is just so hazy and mixed up in my head.) At one point, I remember my amygdala wanting to go into panic mode but I surprise myself by remaining relatively calm. I decide to surrender. I try not to control. I simply flow. And flow, I did... in a let-go-and-let-God-sort-of-way.

And so, Christmas passed. I don't remember how but I ticked off everything on the list. The gifts were wrapped and delivered, the star was put up on the tree, the Advent Wreath ritual was completed, the family went to Christmas Eve mass followed by sumptuous Noche Buena, Santa came and left goodies in stockings, presents were opened the next morning, pictures were taken. Feasting over!

And now I am in front of the computer, in the dark. I can celebrate quietly, alone. I now have time to reflect on what Jesus has to say about all this merrymaking in His honor. He has indulged us once again. I feel sad for my children. They probably think Christmas is about them. I am wondering how I can make it different in the next few years as they get older. I don't want to go on celebrating Christmas this way, but then, I often find myself swept away by the tide of tradition, of cultural and family norms and yes, even of commercialism, no matter what resolutions I make to focus on the reason for the season.

I close my eyes and try to imagine a time in the far future. My husband and I are grandparents now, and the children have their own families. We still celebrate Christmas together but without the madness and frantic preparations that marked the earlier years. In our home, there is music coming from carolers who cannot be with their families for one reason or another. We've prepared a simple Noche Buena and at the end of the meal, the grandchildren bring out presents to give our guests. Everyone gathers around the Christmas creche where we have the real Baby Alive. We sing...

Silent Night, Holy Night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in Heavenly peace
Sleep in Heavenly peace...

Until then, I guess I'll take what I have. I try to convince myself that in whatever form it comes, Christmas is a gift and it is what we do with it the day after that probably matters. I wonder if that makes sense. Maybe I should really get some sleep.

Peace to you and goodwill to all men. Christ our Saviour is born, Hallelujah!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Simbang Gabi

December 16. It's the first day of Simbang Gabi, and my husband and I made it to church on time! This, our annual tradition of going to mass for nine consecutive days before Christmas, is something we had been doing for the past ten years. Joining everyone else who wakes up before dawn to get to church at half past four only to find out it's standing room only was never on our list-of-things-to-do during the holidays. My mother and my sister religiously practiced this ritual and I used to wonder what prodded them to consistently go to church at such an ungodly hour. It was just not for me! Nor was it for my husband. We would much rather enjoy the comfort of our warm bed on a cold December morning, thank you.

Yet, after moving to a village where people brought missals to church, celebrated feasts of the Blessed Mother at the park practically every month, had elaborate rituals during Lent, and prayed incessantly so we would finally have children, my husband and I found ourselves deeply involved in church and surprisingly, enjoying it. On that first year, without any prodding from our normally zealous neighbors, we decided to attend the pre-dawn mass. Afterall, it was simultaneously celebrated in three areas of the village - the main church, the multi-purpose hall near the gate, and the school gym right across the house where we lived. Oh, and in the smaller church where we had gotten married, just outside the village. Obviously, God had His bases covered. We simply had no excuse not to try it.

I remember our very first morning. We went to the huge main church and found it filled to the rafters! The excitement was palpable. The cool December air, the angels hanging by the columns between the doors, lights everywhere, and the choir practicing at the loft, made me think about how the shepherds might have felt the night Jesus was born . It was definitely a Hallelujah moment.

That was not my first time to go to Simbang Gabi. I had gone many years ago but had never completed it and never felt the way I did that particular morning when I went with my husband. It was his first time. What a joy to watch him take it all in like a child given a glimpse of heaven. On that first year, we completed all nine days. If you do, tradition has it that whatever you pray for will come true. While I didn't particularly subscribe to that belief then, I remember praying for a baby... and actually believing that prayer would be answered.

Needless to say, the Simbang Gabi became our ritual as a couple and somehow, our Christmas is not just complete without it. There were years we finished all nine days, there were some when one or both of us couldn't make it on certain days, and there were also times I questioned why we were doing it...but we tried every year anyway.

We live in another village now where traditions, if there are any, are completely unknown to us. So we still go to our old parish where our friends are, where the priest knows our children and where the recycled angels hanging overhead are comfortably familiar. On this first day, as the Gospel is read, I look at my husband. He is no longer in awe. He sings, he participates, he communes, and it occurs to me that he and I are finally one with God. And Simbang Gabi, without my knowing it, has become a part of us. I smile contentedly even if I'm just half-listening to the sermon. Then I think of our children and pray that this Christmas tradition will be a part of their lives someday.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Oh Christmas Tree!

Yesterday, we put up the Christmas tree. Yes, it was already the second Sunday of Advent. But no, I wasn't cramming. This was a deliberate attempt at taking my sweet time to savor Christmas.

Many years ago, I wouldn't have been caught without a file folder marked "Christmas Theme for The Year" in the middle of September. It contained ideas for decor that would coordinate from the tree down to wrappers and bows and trim. I brought it with me when I went around shopping as early as October. By the first week of November, our house would be holiday- ready. There was the tree with Moon and Stars in goldleaf, matched with gifts of gold Hershey's kisses in clear jars tied with golden bows. I wrote Christmas messages on parchment paper in gold ink calligraphy and used these to wrap every gift we sent out. It was our first year of marriage and we had wished everyone a golden year of prosperity ahead. Then there was the Fruit and Nut Christmas, where made-in-china berries and pears were painstakingly tied with bows of green grosgrain. My husband helped me do this one morning, and boy did he have fine motor skills! That year, we hoped for a fruitful year ahead while giving out fruitcake in lovely copper-colored tin tied with ribbons that coordinated with the ones on the tree. When the Asian financial crisis struck and I was neck-deep at work with no time to do hand-made decor, we had our Christmas Card tree. I got angel-inspired blank cards and wrote one-word wishes like Peace, Love, Kindness, Joy... on each one of them, plain and starkly simple to reflect the times. Cards designed by indigent children were all we gave out that year, with our Christmas gift budget going to charity.

Those were the Christmases of the early years of my marriage, when everything I did had to be Martha-Stewart-perfect. I was working as a designer, and my obsessive-compulsive tendencies went on full swing during the season. It was, I thought then, a good thing.

Eventually, we had to pack away our tree, never to be seen for a long while. We had moved to another house that did not need another tree. Our tree had been classified redundant. So it stayed in its box in my parents' house, in a dark closet somewhere with other odds and ends that people keep when they're not sure they want to part with them. For a long time, it sat there, gathering dust. The decor was stored and classified into separate boxes, rotting away as bugs of all sorts found their way there.

In the beginning, when September would come, I would find myself pining for our tree. But soon our first child, a daughter, was born. And I started to forget about it...

Then, two years ago, when we had our son, we moved to a new, old house. No tree there. No inspiring architectural features. No proper plumbing either. It was a mess that no interior designer worth her license would dare take on as a project. My husband and I were so exhausted just having to repair broken windows, sand and stain chipped floors and replace doorknobs among many other things that needed to be fixed, while changing nappies, feeding the baby and coping with the growing demands of his kindergarten sister. The tree didn't even exist in my sub-conscious mind.

Until one day in November, when we were more settled ... my mom called to ask if I wanted my tree back. Oh, we have a tree! I couldn't even remember how tall it was, or what kind of leaves it had. Frankly, I was half-hoping it would be in bad shape so I can find an excuse to get a new one. After all, the decor, as she had reported, were in various stages of decomposition.

The tree was still in its original box. I had mixed feelings of anticipation and anxiety as I dusted and peeled off the packing tape that had sealed it for seven long years. But as I opened the box , a flood of memories transported me back to the day my husband and I bought it in a downtown market far from the suburban neighborhood where we lived. It took us an hour to get there, and nearly another hour to find parking. We had fought. He was extremely upset at having to lug around a huge box through throngs of sweaty people shopping for Christmas. I wanted to buy it there because it was cheaper than the ones sold at the air-conditioned mall near our house. He said it was not worth the trouble. We had coffee. Then we walked some more to the parking lot. By the time we got to the car, we were too tired to fight. At home that night, I opened the box and he set it up -- the first tree of our marriage-- on our first Christmas together. No one was saying anything. I took out our new lights and strung them around ever so carefully as he pretended not to mind me. Then we plugged it. For some reason, gazing at that ornamentless tree in its simple magnificence melted our tiredness away. We smiled and looked at each other. We were not going to file for divorce anymore. It wasn't legal anyway.

So now this fifteen-year-old tree, on its third Christmas in this house, is our tree of Unity. And decor? I kind of winged it -- finding things that I thought would go well together, I closed my eyes and just hoped I was right. The file folder had long been shredded. I no longer had the time, nor the energy to get obsessed. And it turns out to be a good thing.

Home at last, our tree now sits in one corner with glowing orbs of red and green stripes that I normally wouldn't buy, except I'm a mommy now and I know how the flickering lights delight my children. They oohhh and aahhh like very satisfied clients, the sparkle in their eyes brightening up the room even more. There are hand-sewn angels, but also Santa made of felt and yarn, then metallic balls in a hue of red that I personally do not like but mesmerize my little boy nonetheless. Berries, left over from last Christmas, which my daughter briefly puts on her hair for a fairy dance, are now strewn together with mittens made of checkered burlap that say "Season's Greetings". It's a country-hodge-podge tree, with no particular theme. And it's the best we've had so far.

The children were so taken with it they were on hyper-mode all afternoon. Yet, they patiently waited as the lights were wrapped around before they took turns hanging ornaments assigned to them. There was so much singing, hopping and goofing around, we had an instant tree-trimming party! But no, we aren't done yet. The star is not up. We are saving it for the night before Christmas when my husband shall do the honors of topping off this beloved tree.

What a relief not to have to set up everything all at once. Indeed, Advent is the season of waiting. And this Christmas tree, our old new Christmas tree, was definitely worth the wait!

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Man in the Red Suit

My daughter has been asking a lot of questions lately. Oh, she's done this many times before but now, I find myself having to stop and really think of what to answer. This particular season, when there is Santa Claus and his reindeer in bright neon lights glowing on the rooftop of our neighbor's house, she asks, "If Santa goes down through the chimney, how does he get into our house? We don't have a fireplace, mom." This is quickly followed by, "Can reindeers fly?" I try to stall as my mind races, so I say, "It's reindeer, honey. No s. You just learned that in Language, right?"

I look at the rear view mirror as I park into the garage. She is deep in thought. Before she can ask another question, I say, "He does that in countries where houses have chimneys. Here, he probably goes through ... the window." Uh-oh, I think I just drew a picture of Santa looking like a burglar. Not good. "And maybe the reindeer ... are ... enchanted!" I use the word enchanted a lot, it still works sometimes. But then comes the next question. We are in Brain Quest mode now. "How can Santa bring all those gifts around the world in just one night?" Aha. My mind is finally working. I use this as a chance to slide in what I've been wanting to teach her about Christmas.

"God gives Santa the power to do that. See, God is Santa's boss. All those gifts come from Him -they make it in the North Pole but they can't do that without Him. Santa's just the messenger." I think it flies over her head, but she keeps silent. I know she is pondering this ... and that is a good thing.

The questions stop for now. I make a mental note to look for a book about the real story behind Santa. I know that soon I'll have to decide when and how to tell ... that a long time ago, a bishop named Nicholas gave up all his wealth to serve God, bringing glad tidings to the poor and cheer to the little ones. And when he did, everyone made it to the list.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Boy with Drums

Ahhh, Christmas! One reason why I love this season is because we get to do special things we otherwise wouldn't do the rest of the year. Like reading Christmas books! Every night when December comes, I try to read one to the kids before bedtime. In the past, my daughter and I tremendously enjoyed The Night Before Christmas, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Gift of the Magi, The Nutcracker and even Merry Christmas, Strega Nona.

Last year, when my little boy was barely two, I hesitated on doing Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. He was showing some interest in books, which was obvious from the chewed up corners of Tomie de Paola's My First Christmas. But Robert Frost? He probably would have stopped me before we got to the woods! I had to find something more appropriate quickly and I did ---The Little Drummer Boy!

It's a song actually.* I often listened to the version by Bing Crosby as my dad played it on the stereo over and over during Christmastime. So imagine my excitement when I found this little board book, wonderfully illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats. It was a perfect addition to our collection of Christmas stories! Reading it, I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover how simple, yet profound it was. If you take out parum pum pum pum, the lines go...

Come, they told me,
Our newborn King to see,
Our finest gifts we bring
to lay before the King
so to honor Him
when we come.

Baby Jesus
I am a poor boy, too
I have no gift to bring
that's fit to give a King
Shall I play for You
on my drum?

Mary nodded
The ox and lamb kept time
I played my drum for Him
I played my best for Him
Then He smiled at me...
me and my drum.

Last year, the kids sang along accompanied by quiet tapping on their laps. This year, they kept asking me to read again, so that the tapping can progress to marching with eyes closed, then to banging on the walls!

Not a very good idea for a story before bedtime, but hey, I'd like to think it gets the message across. The Son of God came as a poor little baby and did not need fancy gifts. Just a simple song and drum number played from the heart. T-rum, t-rum, t-rum tum tum...

*Words and Music by Katherine Davis, Henri Onorati, and Harry Simeone

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Advent Wreath

It's the first day of December and I can feel Christmas. Two nights ago, we lit the first candle on our Advent Wreath. We started this family tradition when my daughter turned three and now, her brother is a part of it.

Of course, it's less solemn than I would normally like it to be. The kids, thrilled about lighting and blowing candles, ask why we can't light up the four candles all at once or why we can't light the pink candle first. Some negotiations are done as to who will light and who will blow. My son thankfully agrees to blow, except that he attempts to do this pfft pfft thing while prayers are going on. But we proceed merrily nonetheless.

On the first night, we start with my husband blessing the wreath with holy water. I think about the old Holy Family that used to sit at the center of the wreath. Someone had accidentally chopped off St. Joseph's head when he knocked down our little altar months ago and I hadn't been able to send it to my dad to fix. No matter. While cramming to prepare the wreath last Saturday, I found an unopened box of ... a Holy Family with wings of an angel wrapped around it. I had forgotten that I bought this at an after-Christmas sale last year. So now we have a sort-of-new wreath, that is breathtaking in its simplicity. I have the foresight to stick the image onto the center with double-sided tape this time. I pray the angel will protect it from another untoward incident.

Then my daughter, half-complaining why she can't use matches, lights the first candle using a longer one that had been previously lit. The mood changes as everyone gasps at the sight of the small flame that makes the entire room glow. My son immediately moves closer, ready to blow. I quickly hand over the bigger candle and he is satisfied. But not for long.

So my husband and I try to recite the grown-up prayer faster than usual. And my son pays attention for awhile as his sister proceeds to read- - -

All nations are waiting for You...
People in America, people in Canada,
as far as China and here in Manila, are waiting for You ...
Come Jesus come.

For a few seconds, everyone is quiet. I feel like a child again. Then I hear voices, imperfect and out-of-tune, not knowing all the words, but still singing at their mightiest. O come, O come Emmanuel...