by Elizabeth Ann Quirino l Positively Filipinos
“Bring a Belen with you. That way, your children will always know what Christmas means,” said my father.
I did not know then that that was the last Christmas we’d be spending with him in the Philippines.
I took dad’s advice. As we were getting ready to move to America in the early ‘90s, I packed a small Belen. It was a miniature Nativity set with tiny figures of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, animals, angels, shepherds, and the Three Wise Men.
“Display a ‘Belen’ every Christmas next to the tree,” my dad said. He knew in his heart that someday he would have to let go of me, no matter how much he wanted to have us home forever.
I also packed my mother’s old cookbooks and spiral-bound notebooks with her handwritten heirloom recipes. I knew they would be useful.
Our first Christmases as immigrants in the United States were different from how we celebrated them in the Philippines. We lived on the East Coast. Winter was on full blast by Christmas. My sons adapted to the cold. I longed for the warmth of the tropics.
The harsh winters reminded me how much I missed Christmas in the Philippines. I missed it like an old friend. I missed my parents, family, and best friends. I missed the get-togethers, the caroling, and the decorations. I missed the Simbang Gabi (dawn masses) and annual family ritual of Midnight Mass on the 24th, paying respects to our Ninongs and Ninangs (godparents) on the 25th and wearing brand-new clothes that day.
I missed the food. I missed the scent of buttery bibingka – rice cakes with cheese, eggs, butter, and sugar, encased in banana leaves and baked in clay contraptions. The bibingkas at our home were sprinkled with grated queso de bola (Edam cheese).
I missed the sticky, thick puto bumbong. I always got excited prying open the banana leaves it was steamed in, revealing warm, shiny, purple rice logs, to be slathered with coconut slivers, butter, and sugar. These were sold in kiosks around the churchyard. They were a treat after the early morning mass.
I missed the Noche Buena feast and Christmas day lunch my mother cooked.
Food defines us and sets us apart as Filipinos. Yet, food unites us on any given occasion. Thus, no matter how far from the homeland we were, I recreated in my American kitchen, holiday dishes we enjoyed in the Philippines.
A whole baked ham is always the centerpiece of our table. For Filipinos, it’s not Christmas if there’s no ham. You only need a few ingredients. The results are always a dazzling, savory-sweet entree.
At Noche Buena on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day lunch, there are the much-awaited fiesta dishes: lechon (roasted pig), chicken relleno, pork barbecue, pancit, freshlumpia, leche flan, fruit salad, and various colorful kakanins (rice cakes with coconut)—suman, biko sapin-sapin.and more.
When my sons were growing up, I allowed belief in Santa Claus, an American concept, to be incorporated in their lives. They excitedly woke up to “Santa’s gifts” on Christmas morning.
At Christmas breakfast, I served decadent, fluffy ensaymadas to enjoy with the ham. During the holidays, I bake ensaymadas, the Filipino brioche. It’s made of a sweet dough of butter, eggs, sugar, cheese, and flour. The dough rises overnight. Then, sprinkled with cheese, it is shaped into coils to make buns. When they come out of the oven, the butter-cheese aroma fills the air. My husband and sons would yell, “When do we eat?”
My father was right. My children needed to have something to draw strength from as they were growing up. Tapping on our faith was the first solution to anything. Our food nourished our spirit and brought us together as a family.
Through the years, our Christmases in America have been a mosaic of everything – good, happy, sad, painful, abundant, hectic, exhausting, fun, wintry cold, with unique experiences in the mix.
Recently, our grown son gifted us with a much-needed present for Christmas. He gave us a wooden, handcrafted, small barn, to house the Nativity figures I packed in my suitcase a lifetime ago.
“Your Belen needs a home, Mom,” said my son, as he helped put up the Christmas decorations.
This is what my late father meant. Through traditions, our children learned what Christmas was truly about. Those wise words were the last gift my father gave me, on the last Christmas we spent with him, in the house where I grew up.
And with that cherished thought, I hang our parol (Filipino lantern) by our bay window and know in my heart I have all I need for Christmas.