24 December 2011

Noche Buena traditions through generations


Filipino Noche Buena traditions have evolved through the years, just as the country underwent socio-political changes in the various eras since the start of the 20th century, when the Philippines went through peacetime (before WWII), wartime (the Japanese occupation), liberation (the Commonwealth era under the Americans), independence (1946-1972), martial law, EDSA1 and EDSA2.
My maternal grandfather, a very nationalistic CaviteƱo, hated foreigners and all forms of foreign influences, to the extent of having his children all baptized in the Aglipayan church of Bacoor and picking the Aglipayan cemetery for his parents’ final resting place.
Christmas traditions were pronouncedly anti-Hispanic and very native. Instead of imported fruits, ham and cheese, his dinner table was laden with banana leaf-wrapped suman sa lihiya, bowls of purple haleya, metal molds of leche flan, pots of salty-sweet antala and baskets of warm, freshly-steamed tamales. All were made by his wife, Lola Tina, who learned from her mother that the malagkit (sticky rice) was to keep the family together, while sugar meant a harmonious relationship.
As there was no refrigeration, all the food was prepared the same day; we had to start grinding the rice for tamales before dawn as the ube (purple yam) was boiled, peeled and grated for the haleya. The whole day was spent wrapping and tying the suman and tamales which had to steam for hours. Last were the antala (malagkit stewed in coconut cream) and the haleya, both of which required hours of non-stop mixing and stirring in shallow carajay (copper-bottomed pans).
Our family’s Christmas Eve meal changed after my aunts started studying at the University of Sto. Tomas.  As the first in the family to go to college, they were allowed to introduce new items which, they explained, were what everyone else was serving in the city.
It was Christmas Eve in the late 1940s when I first tasted apples; they were Red and Golden Delicious, quite large and elongated in shape, crunchy and juicy. There were also grapes and Sunkist oranges, which tasted so different from the grape-flavored juices and orange sodas we were served in our few visits to the city.
By the early 1950s, my grandfather’s jeepney factory, the first in the country, was doing well. Christmastime meant gifts from his suppliers: red balls of aged Edam cheese from the lumber yard, whole legs of moldy Chinese ham from the Binondo shop that provided his Dupont lacquers and enamels, boxes of sliced bread and crates of imported fruit from bus company owners whose fleets were built on credit.
Chinese suppliers taught Lola Tina (and she in turn showed me) how to simmer the ham leg in large cooking oil cans in three changes of water before scraping the harmless mold off.
The final three-hour simmer, with the ham’s skin still on, involved clavos de comer (whole cloves), laurel (bay leaves), cinnamon sticks, crushed garlic, whole peppercorns, and various liquid flavorings that included, according to availability: Syoktong (Chinese wine), dark beer, 7-Up, pineapple juice.
The last steps in the ham ritual were the removal, in one piece, of the ham skin and the scorching of the brown sugar-sprinkled fat with a red-hot siyanse (flat iron spatula) to produce a crunchy enamel crust. Thin slices of ham, paired with triangular slices of keso de bola, easily became our holiday favorite sandwich fillings.
To wake up the town in time for the 4:00 a.m. Simbang Gabi, the barrio’s brass band marched up and down the main road starting at 3:30. We all went in groups, walking the two-kilometer distance to the Las Pinas Bamboo Organ Church for nine nights. After mass, we would pool our coins and stop at a pondahan (makeshift food stall) to eat puto bumbong or bibingka, served with free tea brewed from young mango leaves and mature avocado leaves.
My own Noche Buena tradition started after marriage to farm-raised American journalist. Our five children grew up on Christmas meals of potatoes, pot roast, smoked ham, roast chicken, homemade bread and gravy.  Our concession to Pinoy Noche Buena was store-bought leche flan and ice cream.
I tried to carry on with the Yankee yuletide meals after Vic’s death six years ago, but my grandchildren prefer an entirely new menu of what they perceive to be celebration food: pasta, pizza, battered fried chicken and French fries.
The spaghetti they prefer on the sweet and sticky side. Tons of melty cheese should top the pizza. The chicken drumsticks need to be buried under layers of crunchy breading, and they prefer French fries sprinkled with powdered barbecue flavoring.
The traditional Filipino kakanin, which we now buy from Divisoria, have also gone through major changes. Instead of plate-sized aluminum molds, the haleya are now sold in ruffled paper muffin liners, sometimes with a layer of leche flan on top.
Tamales is hardly sold by street vendors; to find them one has to go to specialty shops at malls and no one even knows what antala is.
For the nostalgic: Chinese ham cooked the old way, is still available from Adelina’s in Mandaluyong and at Excellente Hams along Echague St. in Quiapo, for those who can afford the price. Perfect with the ham is Pan Bonete, the crusty bread cooked with lard sold at Vienna Bakery next door to Excellente.
Tamales vendors are at Plaza Miranda Fridays, alongside Laguna makers of suman sa lihiya.
By SOL VANZI
MB.COM.PH

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