I hate to brag, but I gotta say, my family does Christmas right. If you haven’t picked up on it already, my entire extended family (and close friends we’ve picked up along the way) all enjoy a bit of theatrics during family gatherings, and Christmas Day is the grand daddy of them all.
Firstly, for as long as I can remember, we’ve dressed up in our holiday finest for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Never mind that we were only going to my aunt’s for dinner – the occasion called for frilly dresses with itchy white stockings, patent Mary Janes, and bows as big as basketballs firmly affixed to our heads. (Easter was the worst as a kid because we were made to wear bonnets. My mother would not buy me an Easter dress unless it came with a matching hat, and let me tell you, as bad as those white wool tights were, nothing is itchier than a plastic straw hat.)
It’s not a black tie event, but there’s definitely an unspoken “no jeans” dress code, and again, with a flair for drama in our genes, everyone takes the opportunity to do it up. I’ve always balked at the idea that other families spend the entirety of Christmas Day in their pajamas. Like, what? Christmas Day is probably the only day of the year I use my curling iron. (For Christmas 2015, I’ve already received two emails from my aunt reminding us “Do not forget your fascintors!”)
The large number of family and friends that gather only adds to the buzz and chaos of the evening. Gifts don’t go “under the tree,” they go “in the tree room.” For several years now, two of my cousins have been designated as elves – collecting and organizing Christmas presents as they arrive to facilitate distribution. When it’s finally time to hand out gifts, the elves go through the roll call. “RICE BALLS, RICE BALL FAMILY, PICK UP YOUR GIFTS IN THE TREE ROOM PLEASE, PAGING THE RICE BALLS.” At the mention of my last name, I quickly report to the tree room and the elves point me in the general direction of my pile of gifts.
As a kid, I’d quickly sort through my haul, separating mine from my parents’, then I’d gather up my presents and meet K underneath the dining table for the grand opening. She and I kept the ritual of opening gifts under the table together until we got old enough that our fashion choices deemed it more trouble that it was worth. But even today at the ripe old age of 30, K and I still wait for each other to be called by the elves so that we can open gifts together.
Then there’s the entertainment. This is really what sets us apart, I think. I don’t know if it’s a Filipino thing, but in our family, children are expected to perform for their elders. The request was as common as “say please, say thank you, NOW SING!” The tradition stems from generations ago – my parents, aunts, and uncles all come from a long line of mandatory performances.
For my generation, I want to say it all started circa 1991 – the year of the first Christmas Spectacular. My family decided they wanted to do a live performance of The Nativity and cast all the children in leading roles. My older cousin A was Mary, G was Joseph, and conveniently, J was about a year old and made a fitting baby Jesus. K and I were seven years old and looked so alike that they cast us both as the angel Gabriel. Worked for me – I only had to memorize half the lines. Yes, there was a script and lines and costumes made from pillow cases and bed sheets. More cousins were cast as shepherds holding canes and stuffed sheep. I remember JR refused to participate without his mom, so Aunt M had to be a shepherd too. One of my uncles played the innkeeper, another uncle was the narrator, and my other aunts and uncles served as the choir. When it was all said and done, we had an audience of about two watching our show. Everyone else was “on stage” in some capacity – singing, narrating, or making sure the shepherds didn’t break down in a tantrum.
After the year of The Nativity, the Christmas Spectacular became tradition. K and I have always been overachiever, type A personalities and that, coupled with an inherited inclination for the extravagant from our mothers, is the only way I can describe why we took on responsibility for the Christmas Spectacular with such gusto at such a young age. I guess our philosophy was “if you’re gonna do it, you better do it right.” So, we set up a proper theater for our show, tacked bed sheets to the ceiling to make a curtain for our stage, kicked everyone off every available chair so that we could set up orchestra and mezzanine seating, made programs, wrote up tickets with markers, and sold them to our audience. We gave opening remarks, alerting the audience where the exits were in case of emergency and asking them to refrain from flash photography until the end of each performance. And of course, the most thankless task of them all: dealing with the talent.
It was easy when we were all in elementary and middle school. We each picked up an instrument during the 4th or 5th grade: me on the flute, K on the violin, A on the clarinet, G with the sax, and JR with the drum pads. We played remedial solos and duets of Christmas classics and our audience cheered as if our version of Good King Wenceslas was the most riveting they’d ever heard. (I wish I could find pictures from these years, but alas, with the arrival of digital photography, I have no idea where to look for photos from the 1990s.)
But then we got older and started to rebel – A, G, and JR all dropped out claiming they had no talent to share. K and I felt obligated (after all, the show must go on) so we’d sing a few carols together, but no more special seating or programs or handwritten tickets. Lucky for us, the next wave of cousins was just coming of age. J showcased his karate skills by breaking boards, N and JV were prodigies on the piano, and R, just learning how to read at the time, regaled the audience with a Christmas story. That one was adorable and yet hilarious because imagine a five year old tentatively reading the Nativity story to a crowd of deaf senior citizens. “What did he say? I can’t hear. Tell him to read louder! Jesus was born? Huh? OHHH JESUS WAS BORN.”
By the time K and I got to college, even our younger talent were starting to tire of the forced performances. K and I weren’t getting back on that stage in our old age, so we had to think of something to revamp the Christmas Spectacular program without having to actually perform. So that’s the year we started with the awards.
K and I presided over several categories including Best Dressed Male, Best Dressed Female, Best Gift Wrapping, Best Food, Loudest, and Most in Need of a Hearing Aid (both male and female versions). Our audience had no idea what was going on when we started to call out the categories, name the nominees, and present the winners with laser printed certificates and bragging rights. Everyone was laughing so hard they were crying and my dad actually tipped us $20.
So, you want to know the secret to bringing out the best in your holidays? Start handing out laser printed certificates. The following year, K and I were inundated with “Have you seen my sweater? It’s very festive.” “Did you taste my ham? It’s very juicy.” “Did you notice my gift wrapping? I added fresh greenery.”
To make things a bit more interactive, the Best Food category is now a People’s Choice award. It’s of course all in good fun, but the competition was starting to heat up. When my uncle mentioned that maybe he should stop making pancit molo (traditional dumpling soup) because it wasn’t winning any awards, K and I intervened and instituted the Lifetime Achievement Award, guaranteeing pancit molo for life.
About three years ago, K and I retired from show business, handing the reins over to the next generation (our younger cousins now in high school and college – ugh, I’m old). One would think that they might not take it on with the same fervor that K and I did, but they did. They grew up with the Christmas Spectacular – they can’t remember a Christmas gathering without it. Yeah, they’d probably rather not have to run around on Christmas Day printing up certificates and counting people’s choice award ballots, but they recognize the serious responsibility of carrying on family tradition. And though they panicked that first year, I must say, they’ve taken the Christmas Spectacular to impressive heights. Thank god K and I are not performing anymore, we wouldn’t have made the cut. It’s been fun to be on the other side of it all with the rest of the audience – filling out the Best Food ballot, making sure our outfits are noticed, and demanding encores, “NOW SING!”
Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and a healthy and wealthy New Year to everyone!