Who doesn’t know Ebenezer Scrooge? How I loathed that frightfully insentient protagonist of Charles Dickens’ book, A Christmas Carol. He was so miserly, he must have been a loan shark, among other things; he would not even spend to heat up his gloomy office during winter. The cold within him froze his pointed nose, shriveled his cheeks, stiffened his gait, turned his lips blue and his eyes red, wrote Mr. Dickens. Scrooge despised Christmas, called it humbug and made his employees work until the wee hours of that holiday. However, Scrooge had a nightmare that was profoundly soul-shaking, he was transformed into a generous compassionate human being by the time he woke up.
The first time I heard the word “Scrooge” was when my mother and I were decorating a Christmas tree. I must have been less than 7 years old because she was still a widow and had not remarried Arch. Angel Nakpil, my stepfather. We were living with my grandparents in a lordly house on Donada street, a stone’s throw away from the Rizal Memorial Stadium. We had our own wing which we shared with my grandmother for Mommy was always away at work; she was a reporter for the “Evening News” which was somewhere in downtown Manila. That evening, a few days before Christmas, she came home with a real evergreen tree that exuded a pleasant fragrance. She set it up against the dining-room wall and opened boxes of red spheres of different shapes and sizes. My brother and I helped her decorate our first ever Christmas tree, I still remember how excited I felt. Then I said we should call Oyoy (my Lolo) so we could show off the Christmas tree, but she said no with a naughty smile.
“ He is a Scrooge,” she said almost in a whisper. She had to tell us about Dickens’ Christmas Carol. But your grandpa is not mean or miserly like Scrooge, she clarified, he just does not like Christmas trees. Neither did he like Santa Claus, I found out much later, because the fat sunburnt man in a red suit was invented by Coca-Cola and had nothing to do with the original Saint Nicholas. However, he allowed us to go to my aunt’s house next door where Santa Claus arrived in a decorated calesa to distribute gifts. Or, maybe, Oyoy did not know about that; Mommy and my grandma must have kept it a secret from him. On Christmas Day, we would go to early Mass at the Nuestra Senora de Guia church in Ermita. Christmas lunch was a sumptuous affair which my grandmother had planned weeks before with the family caterer.
In a way, my mother was also a Scrooge of sorts because she despised Christmas trees with fake snow, mistletoes, Santa Claus and his pack of reindeer. Instead, we would set up a Belen, or creche, the nativity scene with fresh grass and flowers from the garden. We were made to believe in the Three Kings who came when we were fast asleep but left gifts, usually crisp new bills, in our well-polished shoes.
Despite the Scrooges in the family, I looked forward to Christmas especially when I was living on Donada street. In my new Christmas frock, I would wait excitedly for relatives and family friends to arrive with a host of cousins with whom I could barely communicate because they spoke in Spanish. Language was never a barrier on Christmas Day.
Shortly after my mother remarried, my uncle Leonie, who lived in another wing of the house, was appointed ambassador to the Court of St. James, so my grandfather’s house was suddenly empty. There were no more Christmas lunches on Donada street. My mother and stepfather would take me to Ariston Bautista’s house on Barbosa street in Quiapo. My brother and I also shared Christmas at the home of my Cruz grandmother on Valenzuela street in Santa Mesa or at an aunt’s house in Pasig. At each place, there were different sets of aunts, uncles, and cousins, distinct culinary styles and “sobremesa” rituals. Christmas was filled with the unexpected.
My Christmases have never been all the same because of the vicissitudes of life, but whether alone or with a bevy of friends and relatives, with or without a Christmas tree, in a foreign country or in these islands, I always celebrate the birth of the Savior with gratitude, sharing the blessings I have received through the years.