By: Nieves Catahan Villamin
From: Bittermelons and Mimosas, a Philippine memoir
Rice fields that year flaunted rice stalks that were superior to the previous ones. On the riverbanks rays of sunlight shimmered through the dewdrops nestling on the vines of the wild makahiya plants. As the colder autumn air moved over the warmer water in the nearby river, it gave the appearance of steam rising out of the water. When this happened, we knew that Christmas was just around the corner. What an extraordinary way to celebrate Christmas with our granaries overflowing with palay grains!
It was a few days before Christmas of the same year. My best friend Naty and I had just finished gathering firewood from the nearby woodland and getting ready to head home. We had to cross back a tree-lined never-ending brook, which at that time of the year had almost dried up.
During the rainy seasons, the brook becomes a giant fishpond where native fishes from upstream get trapped. Like the tree branches, bamboo stumps, and bushes downed by the previous typhoons and became the firewood that cooked our food; the brook provided a means of life to the barrio people
On our way home with Naty following behind, she asked me a question.
“Are you hanging a sock on your banggerahan tonight?
Trying not to step on a carabao dung while crossing the still muddy brook with a bilao full of firewood on top of our heads was like a magician performing his balancing act. If the magician missed the trick, it could mean a disaster. Naty’s strange question made me missed a step. Darn! My right foot stepped on the still squashy dung!
“What for?” I hissed under my breath as I rubbed the dirt off my right foot onto the ground. I was very annoyed.
Her question picked my curiosity. After getting rid of the dung from my right foot I turned around and faced her. The bilao filled of firewood still crowned on my head.
“Sus! So Santa Claus can put coins a Christmas present inside like he did mine last year. I can’t believe you! An honor student who didn’t know about Santa Claus!”
I detected the sarcasm in her voice as if she were telling me, “I am smarter than you are.” Maybe she was. I had never heard about Santa Claus until that day.
Faced with each other now with neither one of us trying to make a move, I asked.
“So who is Santa Claus? Is he a ghost or a magician?” I sneered at her to hide my embarrassment because she made me feel stupid.
“No, he isn’t a ghost or a magician. My parents described him to me as a chubby, white-bearded old man who rewards well-behaved children. They told me I had been a good girl. So Santa gave me plenty of coins last year – most were ten-centavo coins.
“So you are hanging a sock tonight?” I volleyed the question back to her.
“Of course.” Naty’s confidence and optimism about Santa Claus were contagious. I started to believe!
“Coins this Christmas? Wow … I would rather have them than sweets or the native delicacies as Christmas presents! I exclaimed.
Although it sounded like another “Kiko and the Python” scam to me, I began to imagine coins inside my sock the minute I unloaded the firewood in the kitchen. My mind was on overdrive counting the things I could buy with the coins. Perhaps some velvet ribbons and shiny hairpins to pretty up my plain ponytail. There was a boy in school that I liked very much.
I was short and dark, a chubby girl with a moon-shaped face, nothing close to being pretty. But it gave me the creeps when I thought of being called Ting’s girlfriend. (Tinga meant food particles lodged between the teeth. That was his surname!) But I really liked him. He might make fun of my hair looking like of a doll’s, but at least he noticed me!
Acting on Naty’s instructions that Christmas Eve, I hung one of my brother’s socks on one end of our banggerahan. I made sure it wouldn’t be blown down by the breeze.
I stretched on my bed; a mat spread out on the wooden floor to fall sleep. I was very careful not to attract attention because I knew that, just to annoy me, my younger sisters would tease me mercilessly by calling me, “Idad Luka-luka Baho.” Crazy Stinky Idad lived alone in a big house across our school. She had an orchard and vegetable garden that we frequented when she wasn’t around.
Lying on my bed, I whispered my sincerest prayer and asked Santa to grant my wish: coins inside the sock, my reward for being a good girl. I had gathered firewood on weekends and fetched water for cooking and drinking almost every day. That should be more than enough for my name to be included on his list!
I tossed and turned on the hard floor. I did not let any noise or sound escape my ear. I hoped against hope that Santa would grant my Christmas wish as he had done to my friend Naty and other children. I waited and waited until my eyelids got very heavy. No sign that Santa had come yet. Then I fell asleep.
Angelic voices from afar stirred me from my sleeping state. With my eyes closed I let my imagination ran wild. I did not want to hear carolers, who during those times made rounds close to midnight and into the wee hours of the morning. I wanted to see the silhouette of a chubby old white-bearded man tiptoeing and putting coins inside the sock, instead. I shot a glance at the sock dangling from the banggerahan through my half-opened eyes. Its position hadn’t changed. From the looks of it, Santa hadn’t come yet. As the carolers’ voices drifted farther away, so did my thoughts.
The morning light seeping through the wooden windowpanes woke me. I vaulted from my sleeping mat and hurried toward the kitchen. The sock was there, its hanging position still unchanged. My heart beating fast, I reached up and yanked it down. It dropped to the floor. To my dismay, there was no cling-clang of coins when it landed on the hard floor. It was empty. I broke into tears.
Naty got her coins. I was too young to know it was her parents who put the coins inside her socks, not Santa. I don’t think she knew it either. The coins were her rewards from her parents. She took care of the other children while they were away peddling house wares in different places.
The incident made a Santa Claus non-believer out of me. I told myself I would not tell my children stories like Santa Claus’ or create fantasies because I didn’t want them to experience the pain I felt as a child when Santa had ignored me.
Although the year ended on a bittersweet note as far as I was concerned, our family waited the anticipated bounty with much excitement.