Lots of folks marvel at big and bright Christmas displays in malls but I don’t. I’ve always found them uninteresting even as a kid, though malls were nowhere yet in those days. But there was this Christmas show at the COD Department Store in Cubao which was considered grand then. Remember it? People from all parts of Metro Manila (even Luzon) flocked to it with their families like it was the greatest show on earth. Me? I just took one look and hurried home, asking myself, “What was that?”
But something made me excited about Christmas. Aside from the gifts I anticipated getting from my uncles, aunts and godfathers, I couldn’t wait for what Pedro and I had planned for Christmas back then, especially Christmas Eve. Pedro was my teenage pal from the neighborhood (lived just across the fence) and we were buddies since grade school. Pedro’s his real name but I liked calling him Pablo. And we had a different thing each Christmas.
We had this small nook in our huge backyard under bushes and trees where we placed small chairs and a table. Our little hideout. At dusk the place would look mysterious and we’d kill time there talking of anything under the sun, mostly about our dream of going up Baguio by ourselves for adventure and foolishness. The lone small candle in the middle of the small table would cast our huge shadows against the concrete fence and the bushes around while we laughed and had picnic.
So one day, when we were grade school boys, we came up with this idea—a picnic on the Eve of Christmas. I would sneak in our kitchen and “steal” some food for Noche Buena and take that to our hideout. He’d do the same from their kitchen. Then we’d meet in our backyard after midnight, right after Noche Buena. To signal our presence (it was very dark in the backyard), we’d do our unique whistle tune. When he heard me do it, he’d whistle back and climb up the fence and wade through the bushes until he got to our hideout.
Then we’d unpack our booty on the table—hotdogs, bacon, salami, ham of various kinds, barbecue, roast chicken, ube jalaya, and rice. Yup, we ate salami with rice. I loved having Noche Buena with my family but it was something else eating there with Pablo and telling stories and laughing all we wanted. Sometimes, my cousin, Arnold, joined us and he’d act as our runner, sneaking back to our kitchen for more supplies.
It became some sort of Christmas tradition for us. Each December we’d plan how and where we’d hold our Christmas Eve picnic. Sometimes we had it right on the fence with the midnight darkness as our cover (his mom was strict so sometimes we had to do it in secret).
There was even a time when we decided to roast chicken. We pitched in our savings and went to Munoz market to buy a whole chicken. We marinaded it, thrust a bamboo stick through it and cooked it over red-hot charcoal in our backyard. Soon, the whole backyard was filled with its meaty aroma. We had grilled small pieces of pork before but it was our first time to roast a whole chicken, and we were only in grade school. I had some experience cooking outdoors as a boy scout, but then again, roasting a whole chicken was something new. It was going to be a very exciting Christmas Eve!
When we thought it was ready, we placed it on our small table and started eating it. After a few bites, we decided it was half-cooked, with some blood still on the meat. After that we felt a bit sick. I decided to call it a day and kept the chicken in the fridge for re-cooking tomorrow.
The following morning, Pablo had an upset stomach and could not join me for re-roasting the chicken. So I put it in our oven and roasted the thing there until it was well cooked, with golden brown skin and all oozing with mouthwatering juices. And the aroma—Ummm! When I told him about it, Pablo came over despite his upset stomach and we devoured the thing with Arnold. It was so delicious! It was gone after a few minutes.
Since then, Christmas had a new meaning to us. It was a time for grand picnic at our hideout, under the cover of midnight, with lots of story-sharing and laughter plus the cool midnight breeze—with the small voices of kids in the distance as background, singing carols in the neighborhood.
I can’t remember when our Christmas picnics stopped—perhaps when we went to college and our schedules became hectic and Pablo became more interested in pretty girls than picnics and I became so engrossed with martial arts. But now and then I’d go to our backyard (which looks different now than it did before), imagine ourselves there and recall our Christmas binge.
Well, today I have a very different view of Christmas. It’s a time to be less busy with life and just go back to the original Christmas story in the bible to know Jesus more and ponder on it and share what I find with my wife and kids.