I do not remember the Christmases we spent at Gabriel Beato Francisco’s house on Lipa Street in Sampaloc, our refuge after the Guerrero residence in Ermita was destroyed by “friendly” fire, during the Battle for Manila in February 1945. My maternal grandma was a daughter of G. Beato Francisco so that was probably why we, homeless war refugees, were taken there in a big truck. That I remember even if I was then barely two, but I have no memory of hearing the adults talking about Christmas, much less about Santa Claus. Young as I was, I could sense my widowed mother’s grief and my grandpa’s pain of loss – the wages of war.
When we moved to Donada Street in Pasay in 1948; the entire block was inhabited by relatives, an assortment of in-laws, a band of cousins with whom my brother and I played after school. My mother brought home a Christmas tree, boxes of red glass balls, and yards of tiny colored lights. She was working at a newspaper and must have bought all that with her pay check. But, there was grumbling from my grandpa’s quarters about the Christmas tree not being part of our tradition, unlike the Reyes Magos (Three Kings). Mother paid no heed; I must say I enjoyed decorating that Christmas tree because she was spending time with us and seemed quite happy. My grandma helped us rather reluctantly, wary of things introduced by gringos (Americans).
One fine day, my mother took me to a beauty salon where I sat quietly as I watched attendants fuss over her hair. The owner was a French lady who conversed with my mother in French; “poupée…” I heard her say the word several times and each time my mother politely answered in the negative. Then the lady brought out a music box shaped like a book with two pages and as she turned the pages it played either “Mary Had a Little Lamb “or “Jack and Jill.” I was absolutely fascinated; I looked at my mother imploringly but she ignored me and returned the music box to the French lady. On the way home I asked her what poupée meant and she said doll. “Don’t you have too many?”
On Christmas Eve, she announced that Santa Claus would go to my cousins’ house next door and that my brother and I were invited to meet him and receive gifts. By that time, I had heard about Santa and had seen his pictures in magazines and in Acme cold store where my grandparents would go every Sunday after Mass to buy flowers and household supplies for the week. At the appointed time, my brother and I went next door, dressed in party clothes, accompanied by ubiquitous yayas. Mother was working late beating deadlines and grandma supervising Doroy, the cook, as he prepared the Noche Buena dinner.
My aunt’s house was filled with cousins and children of family friends all holding their breath in gleeful anticipation. When the main gate swung open, we heard tiny bells tinkling, but Santa did not dash in from the clouds in a sled, he was driving a caretela embellished with red and green bunting. A rather handsome, well-fed lightbrown Batangas pony with bells around its neck took the place of the reindeer. Santa did not Ho! Ho! Ho! but he smiled amiably at everyone as he climbed the front steps. My aunt — who had organized the memorable spectacle — led him to a winged chair near a Christmas tree. The yayas were wide-eyed, so were we children; we could not help but stare at this suntanned burly man with a luxuriant white beard, dressed in a red suit and cap strictly demanded by Santa Claus etiquette.
Then he opened an enormous sack and started distributing gifts with the help of my aunt who read out the names. When my turn came, I walked briskly to receive my present but did not open it until Santa left. I ripped the wrapping paper anxious to see what Santa had given me; to my surprise, it was the music box book that the French lady at the salon was showing my mother.
How did Santa Claus know? Who told him? I asked my mother. “Who was that Santa? “I insisted. ” Don Ramon’s driver,” she confessed. Don Ramon was my aunt’s father. That was when I knew Santa Claus did not exist.
However, I believed in the Three Kings for many years. My grandparents would say I had to shine my shoes properly and leave them out on the windowsill so the Kings would know where to leave their gifts. Although our windows were grilled and screened and the house was surrounded with a high thick wall trimmed with shards of broken glass, my brother and I were sure that Gaspar, Melchor, and Balthazar, and their respective camels, would breach those formidable obstacles.
And they always did! Once, to my utter delight, they left me a fully furnished two-story dollhouse, which oddly enough, was exactly what a girl cousin received. Santa Claus came only once, but the Three Kings followed us all the way to a new home in San Juan.