By CJ Juntereal
Christmas was early this year, Nene thought to herself with a sigh. It was the end of August, and she was already hearing the notes of a Christmas carol playing over the cramped FX’s radio as she made her way home. She felt her shoulders droop just a little bit more under burdens both imagined and real. Life had been tough for the past few years. She was raising three boys on her own, with a job that paid always just a little bit less than she needed each month, but took a little bit more out of her as the days went by. But it was a job and she was still luckier than most, she consoled herself as she sat out the interminable traffic. To pass the time she began to compute how much money she could afford to set aside each month to spend for Noche Buena and presents. It would not be as nice as the NocheBuenas she remembered growing up, or as lavish a spread as the ones she reads about in the glossy magazines that are her guilty pleasure, but she was determined that her sons would have the same happy memories she had growing up.
Christmas in the Philippines is larger than life—bigger, brighter, more festive, more joyous than anywhere else in the world. How could it not be? We have a season that runs from September when the first tentative strains of Jose Mari Chan’s “Christmas in Our Hearts” hit the malls, builds into a frenzy of shopping, traffic, Misa de Gallo, and Christmas get-togethers, and culminates with Noche Buena and the New Year’s Eve Media Noche. And because it is the Philippines, food is the center of the celebration. Three hundred years as a colony of Spain brought us their religion, culture, and cuisine. Forty-eight years as an American colony also added influences to our culture and cuisine. Much of this can be seen in the way we celebrate Christmas.
That first day of Simbang Gabi, the nine-day mass to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary as she awaits the birth of Jesus Christ builds the anticipation as we yawn our way to Church at 4 a.m. The reward for perseverance is always piping hot bibingka studded with salted eggs and kesong puti, bright purple puto bumbong shaken out of bamboo cylinders and slathered with margarine, muscovado sugar, and grated coconut, and cups of native chocolate or ginger tea purchased from vendors waiting outside the church. We eat carefully, blowing impatiently as steam rises from the bibingka and tsokolate, lest we burn our tongues.
They say that Simbang Gabi traces back to the 17th century, when the Christmas season coincided with harvest season and it was customary to hold thanksgiving prayers in the evening. But the farmers were always too tired to attend because they were in the fields at the crack of dawn, so the friars decided to hold mass at 4 a.m., before the farmers set off for their fields.
For the first time in years, Clara did not attend Simbang Gabi. It hurt too much. Her mother—her Christmas co-conspirator, shopping companion, and Simbang Gabi partner—had passed away a few months ago after a lingering illness. At 25 she was old enough to be an adult, yet young enough to still need her mom, and she felt overwhelmed. But she had promised her mom that she would look after the family, and that included Christmas. So in between the demands of her job she shopped and planned Noche Buena, so that everything would be just the way her mom did things. The tree was hauled out and put together, and she hung the ornaments with care—in the middle of the night after work, exhausted but determined. The food for Noche Buena was purchased in a frantic dash around the supermarket the day before Christmas Eve. She wrapped presents late into the night while her family slept, then set out the dishes and other things she would need to set a festive table—just like her mom’s. And if she felt like crying, she reminded herself fiercely that she was lucky—she had a family, and a home, and enough to celebrate a festive Christmas.
The Noche Buena meal is always much anticipated. And while today the festive table includes all sorts of different dishes, some things remain the same. They are dishes we remember from childhood, that our mothers remember, that were served by our grandmothers and great grandmothers. The traditional food of a Filipino Noche Buena is a happy combination of Spanish and American influences, and our own Filipino culture.
The Spanish brought Europe with them. Rich stews, desserts laden with butter and sugar, ham, cheeses, a fiesta culture. The Americans introduced things like fruit salad, spaghetti, turkey, burgers, and other quick meal alternatives. Today, those who have the means will have ham, lechon, roast beef, or roast turkey as their centerpiece. The ham or hamon will be a European, American, or Chinese-style ham. Hamon, cured and salted, arrived with the galleons from the Acapulco trade in the middle of the year, and would keep until Christmas. And as early as the late 1500s, Chinese style hams would arrive on Chinese trading vessels. Holiday hams are magnificent to behold—tender and sweet-salty from being boiled in pineapple juice, brown sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and other ingredients introduced by the Americans. Outside, the ham glistens with a crackling sugar crust. In the old days, cooks would heat a sianse (metal spatula) until it smoked and carefully press it onto sugar that had been sprinkled on the ham, melting and slightly caramelizing it.
The ham is served with thin slices of Queso de Bola and warm pandesal. Queso de Bola, with its distinctive red wax covering, is Dutch Edam cheese. It was also a staple on the galleons because it could survive the months-long trans-Atlantic and Pacific journeys. The older the cheese, the more concentrated the flavor—harder, crumbly, salty, strong. This was what the cheese looked like by the time it arrived on Philippine shores, and what Filipinos grew used to. The Dutch Marca Piña brand now makes mature, saltier Edam cheese specifically for the Philippine market, to mimic those balls of cheese from long ago.
We have other Noche Buena dishes that draw influence from Spain. Our Leche Flan, rich with egg yolks or dense and sweet from condensed milk—depending on what we can afford. There is Chicken Galantina. At its simplest the ground pork stuffing is flavored with raisins, pickle relish, and Vienna sausages. At its most lavish it will have olives, cheese, chorizo, and red peppers as well. But always it is an example of the ingenuity of the Filipino people during their years of colonization—taking the best they could afford and making a dish as delicious as those eaten by the rich. There is also paella. It can be golden yellow and fragrant with expensive saffron, Spanish chorizo, and fresh prawns. Or its yellow coloring can come from our local kasubha (local safflower) or luyang dilaw (yellow ginger), with chicken and pork, and local chorizo as its main flavoring.
From the Americans we learned fruit salad—tinned fruit mixed with cream and sugar. And because cream was expensive, whether tinned or fresh, Filipinos learned to stretch it with condensed milk. That flavor of tinned cream mixed with sweet condensed milk is the taste of home and childhood for many Filipinos. We also learned macaroni salad. But the Filipino version is a far cry from the rather plain American version. We have evolved a macaroni salad that combines sweet and salty, with bits of pineapple, apple, shredded chicken, ham, cubed cheese, raisins, carrots, pickle relish, and well, maybe everything but the kitchen sink. But it is delicious!
It is difficult today, to pinpoint the perfect example of a Filipino Noche Buena, because it can be any food that is special to a family. It can be as simple as soup and pan de sal or as grand as full buffet feast with lechon as the centerpiece. The ingredient that brings everything together is family—the family you were born into, and the family you choose—being together, celebrating a night of peace and hope.
Nene watched her sons shriek with glee, happy with the small presents she had bought in Divisoria, and her worries lifted. They had been to early Christmas Eve Mass and eaten their Noche Buena long before midnight because the littlest boy would not have been able to stay awake. For Noche Buena they had eaten spaghetti, slightly sweet the way the boys liked it, with bits of Vienna sausage to stretch the meat, and shards of quick melt cheese grated on top. She had made fruit salad, and saved up to buy a small hamon de bola. The ham was her indulgence, a reminder of childhood Christmases and a simpler time. Tomorrow she would visit her parents. It was time. Maybe she could admit that she needed a little help, and they could accept that she was a grown woman able to stand by her decisions. Her sons would meet their grandparents, and in time they would love them, too. She was a little anxious, but it was Christmas, and well, there was hope. And for tonight, the hugs of her boys.
Clara looked around the Noche Buena feast her family was gathered around. Her brothers and their wives, her dad, a brand new baby nephew, her grandmother, her aunts. She had cooked the whole day—roast beef served rare with gravy on the side, the chicken galantina from her grandmother’s recipe rich with chorizo and red peppers, a platter of cheeses and sliced hams, and the family’s favorite spaghetti with meat sauce. The spaghetti was her mom’s recipe, redolent with Italian spices, simmered for hours until the oil rose to the surface and bubbled with a red sheen. She sat at her mom’s place, though she knew she could never fill her shoes. In time she would grow into her new role, and learn to do things her way. But for now, she hoped that her mom would be proud of all she had managed to do. They celebrated Christmas the way her mom would have wanted them to—together at the table, eating good food. They told stories and remembered her mom, and with each old story that sounded new again their laughter sounded happier, less forced. Their table was piled full of memories, and their hearts grew lighter. Christmas, Clara realized, brought joy even to hearts that felt dark and sad. Christmas brought memories, old ones meant to comfort and heal, and new ones meant to bring hope that life would be good again.