Slowly, but surely, a tradition is spelling itself out: that in the first chilly days of December we witness this exodus of friends and families, neighbors and work associates bound for Manila. Destination: Paskong Pinoy —Christmas in the home country. All else may evolve during this millennium, but December in the Philippines is a time-warp experience for the returning native. December in the home soil is familial rounds of Simbang Gabi, Noche Buena, Mano po, Ninong, Mano po, Ninang, you name it, we love it.
For those of us unable to be part of a December exodus, the Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C. brought us home with the speed of lightning. We didn’t spend the night before packing; no struggling with taped-up, roped-down boxes, and absent was the check-in security pat-downs at the airport. We responded to an invitation to a “Paskong Pinoy”.
On a Saturday evening in early December, you could mistake the unlit driveways on Harewood Road, N.E. and find yourself maneuvering out of the grounds of the Washington Retreat House after seeing the familiar display (next door) of twinkling parols(!) signaling that you missed your destination. You deftly exit back to Harewood and re-enter the adjacent driveway of the John Paul II Cultural Center. And wonder of wonders, you arrive in Parking Space Heaven! An embassy affair without the need to circle Massachusetts Avenue and 17 th Street in search of legal parking? Unheard of!
The convex space of the JPII Center dazzled with parols blinking clear through the glass walls. A fully lit Christmas tree was a centered backdrop in the performing area. Seated were more than a hundred people (who were on time!) and others “Standing Room Only” were at least 15 minutes late, myself included.
Ang Gabing Payapa transported the audience as if on a plane descending on an imaginary runway, coasting on the tarmac . . . home. Compositions by Lucio San Pedro, Ryan Cayabyab and Fr. Manoling Francisco were unfamiliar carols. The Twelve Days of Christmas adapted in Tagalog, however, brought the house down with each item countdown. It was performed complete with props by an all-ladies chorale. What followed were medleys of traditional Pinoy carols and capping the evening was music provided by a rondalla group.
The evening’s “homesick” barometer shot up with Pasko na, Sinta ko. It sent waves of longing and familial memories, lingering on love lost or a love left behind. It was palpable, this intake of breath from the audience and its slow release. It is my own “little town of Bethlehem.” It brought home the reality that we were not back home but we were home.
Have we started our own traditions, we out here in the global community? If we had spent our December in Manila, would we have heard all these familiar carols live and sung with such spontaneity and so deeply connective to its listeners? Probably not, unless the strains came from the radio airwaves, seen on slick TV specials or one attended a concert at the Cultural Center for tourists and balikbayans.
For those of us who are left behind, this particular evening was resplendent with glorious carols, all our own. Add to this the warmth of beso-beso greetings within a circle of friends, and nodding to strangers because we needn’t explain or translate what the power of nostalgic recall brought out in each of us. We sang along and clapped in polka time and smiled ear-to-ear. A holy night, it was. Joy to the World. Joy indeed.
12 December 2005