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By Sol Vanzi

The Philippines, land of a thousand fiestas and holidays, still considers the Christmas season as the most festive period of the year.

Families save up to prepare special family meals, and clans congregate for noisy, sentimental  annual reunions for which everyone wants to look his best.

When we were kids in the 1950s, our parents bought us shoes only once a year, in mid-December. Girls were given two dresses annually: one on their birthday and another to wear on Christmas clan gatherings and traditional calls on godparents to collect aguinaldo (Christmas gift) in cash and kind.

Our Christmas attire had to be brightly colored. No blacks, grays, browns, or tans. Prints had to be cheerful, often floral.

Gender definitions were very strict. Girls wore a lot of ribbons: on their hair, waist, wrists, socks, and shoes. Girls looked like girls, and boys looked like little men.


In the days before malls and RTW (ready-to-wear) clothes, acquiring a Christmas dress was a major production that involved months of planning and several trips to city stores and the town’s dressmaker.

A Christmas dress began with a design copied from a magazine picture. The neighborhood modista (seamstress) then advised my mother how many yards of cloth to buy. We took an early  November trip to the Pasay public market or to Divisoria’s textile stores to buy cloth.

The modista scheduled me for measurement and calendared the date when she expected to work on my dress. We agreed on a date for a fitting, when I would try on the almost-finished dress. After the fitting, she would put the finishing touches: collar, buttons, zipper, pockets, ribbons, etc. The dress would be ready for final fitting and pick up before Christmas Day.


Red was the most popular attire color. It symbolized joy at the birth of Jesus, strength to face the coming year, and happiness for all the blessings received.


Red was also the favored color for the parol (Christmas lantern), which even the most humble nipa hut displayed.

Boys wore red t-shirts and socks while girls tied red ribbons on their braids. No one wore red shoes because the Christmas shoes, our only pair of footwear, had to be worn to school.


Christmas Day was when the young felt rich and free. Traveling in groups, they went from one godparent to another collecting aginaldo. At the end of their rounds, they summed up their collections and decided how to spend the loot.

Entrepreneurs knew exactly how to make the young part with their Christmas collections. Small fairs sprouted even in far-flung barrios. Town cinemas featured movies aimed at a young audience. Ambulant vendors peddled cheap plastic toys.

My young cousins and I returned home before dinner. We were tired, hungry, and almost broke. But we were all happy as we fell asleep still wearing our Christmas clothes.



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