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Carmen Guerrero Nakpil’s “A Christmas Memoir”
By Kathleen Burkhalter

A Christmas Memoir by Carmen Guerrero Nakpil

For a real old-fashioned Christmas treat, read Carmen Guerrero Nakpil’s “A Chistmas Memoir”. The wave of nostalgia it will induce is a real Yuletide experience for Filipinos everywhere. Not since reading Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” have I been so charmed and made homesick for a place and time I have never seen.

Her memoir spans a day, but that is a day in which the reader is led by the hand from the interior of the family with all its wonderful characters...

Nakpil is a historical writer of great talent. Her writing is a magic window into a time long gone, yet she conjures it perfectly. Readers drawn into this book will see, hear, and taste Christmas Day.

Most Filipinos, I assume, cannot remember this Christmas world of old Ermita. The old neighborhood had a geography bound by language—it was the old bastion of Spanish-speaking Filipinos, old hold-outs from the Philippine revolutionary era. They were unconquered souls who did not bend to the easy American cultural takeover that spread without opposition throughout the Philippines.

Nakpil had a traditional Ermitense childhood and no day of the year was bound with more decorum and etiquette than Christmas in old Ermita. Her memoir spans a day, but that is a day in which the reader is led by the hand from the interior of the family with all its wonderful characters, out on the old Filipino custom of the aguinaldo—the customary visitation of godparents and family friends on Christmas Day.

Old Ermita lives only in the memory of the very old these days.  Sitting squarely in the middle of my life, I can remember ancient relatives who spoke Spanish and exuded a kind of gentility and charm based on the old fashioned ability to make small talk and keep the family well sewn into the fabric of the old neighborhood.

Christmas morning was something to be taken in one's stride (like the rainy season)
and enjoyed placidly (like the afternoon chocolate) . It was tradition and piety and joy
to men of good will. But it was also, specially on Christmas morning, the giving and taking
of Christmas presents. Photo from the Facebook page of Carmen Guerrero Nakpil.

The violence at the end of World War II obliterated a thriving, unique, and beautiful culture of old Manila. The Ermita of her childhood was full of the illustrados, the educated and refined class of people whose status was unattached to money, but whose reach through time still influences Filipino culture today.
The world that Nakpil describes is one step removed from that of Jose Rizal.  This Christmas excursion, both time travel and history lesson, is delightful and pang-filled. Those who remember the old Manila of the peacetime years must think of it as a dream.

The Philippines was recently named, the “most emotional” country on Earth. Its travel slogan is “It’s more fun in the Philippines.”  This short memoir both offers a kind of heartbreak for a lost world, as well as a rollicking ride through this most important of Filipino holidays.

Perhaps if you find yourself in old Manila on Christmas Day, you might stop and listen for the old soldiers, the maiden aunts, the happy voices of cousins, the laden tables and a world lived in Spanish, long before the change came.

© Kathleen Burkhalter

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