By Raymund P. Reyes
Four weeks before Christmas, 1984
Mama herded the entire family into the living room. Papa opened the paper and plopped down on the couch. Flor turned on the television to watch cartoons. That morning I wanted to practice on my ukulele for my grade-school Christmas program, but Mama knocked incessantly outside the bedroom door until I gave in. Only for an hour, she said. I knew better. It was time for Mama’s Christmas list, a holiday tradition that had become as sacred for the family as the nine-day misa de gallo, the noche buena, the parol, and the nativity scene in the front lawn. Going through the list usually took an entire morning to finish.
“Now that everyone’s here…turn down the TV volume, Flor, so you can hear me,” Mama tapped my sister on the shoulder with her pen for attention. She then took out a little black planner from her skirt pocket. It contained a list of names of her every godson, goddaughter, special friend, and anyone she thought deserving of a Christmas gift. She started rattling off names, pausing at each one, asking questions, and coaxing for our opinions. The list was updated every year. Some names were added, some crossed out.
“Ricky, your Aunt Nena’s son. Should I give him a gift or a card?” Mama asked.
“Card,” Papa grunted. “He’s gotten rich from the stock trade, he won’t need another shirt, book, or fancy pen that he can well afford by himself. And while you’re at it, send another card to your Aunt Nena, too.”
“Come on, Bert. Just because some people are well-off doesn’t mean that they would not appreciate a little something. And Ricky always comes by with his wife, Ruth, to bring the children presents. Such thoughtfulness!”
“Wrap him a pack of tobacco, then. Rick smokes them, doesn’t he? But Aunt Nena still gets a card.”
“Okay,” Mama jotted a note on her notebook. “What about Glenda, Tina’s nanny?”
“Give her a blouse and skirt set,” Flor suggested. “Glenda’s mother is a good friend of yours, Mama, isn’t she?”
“Yes, and I might as well wrap something for her sister, Dolor. She gave me that cross-stitched Last Supper for my birthday. She toiled at that piece herself. How thoughtful! Next is Belen, Josie’s daughter and my goddaughter on her wedding. For last year, I remember having given her a punch bowl.”
“Give her cups and saucers this time,” Papa chuckled.
“Didn’t she leave for Canada, already?” I reminded them.
“Oh, yes…Flor, would you call Mrs. Ramirez and ask for Belen’s address in Canada? I’ll just send her a card, then. I bought two boxes of cards last week, so I am well-stocked this year…What about Sheena, Anita’s niece? I’m planning to give her the rice cooker I won in the PTA raffle last April. We don’t use it anyway.”
“Sheena didn’t come last year, did she? I doubt she’d come to claim her gift this year,” I objected. “You can just give the rice cooker to Manay Celia, our old nanny.”
“I’m giving Manay Celia a dress. Let’s see… maybe I’ll just reserve the rice cooker to Sheena, but if she doesn’t come, I’ll give it to Manay Celia. Next name…Manong Anding, the plumber …”
“Mama, he died two weeks ago, haven’t you heard?” I interrupted. “I am surprised you didn’t hear about it.”
“Did he? No, I haven’t heard…because we haven’t had any plumbing problems for months now. How unfortunate. What happened to Manong Anding, Bert?” She asked Papa as she drew a line over Manong Anding’s name on her list.
If we went through the names fast enough, the list would be finished by noon; otherwise, Mama would force everyone back to the living room after lunch. Papa would, therefore, hasten the reminiscences and digressions when the clock chimed eleven so as to be free from Mama for the afternoon.
Mama took her role as godmother to heart. There was always something at Christmas for every godson and -daughter. Most of them remembered her every year, too.
Not everyone on the list came to visit and claim their presents. The better-off usually did not bother. But there would be about fifty who would come to the house each year. Fifty to be given presents. Every Christmas, on the eve and the day itself, they would come. Mama’s gift-giving had become a holiday tradition to them as well. For most of them, it did not matter anymore what they received. They simply appreciated the act of generosity. For others, it was a good excuse for a get-together after missing each other the entire year.
There was Aling Letty, the washer woman who would bring her five children with her. Only the third child was Mama’s goddaughter, but all five received gifts. There was Manong Lito, the janitor from the school Mama taught in. There was Aling Tina, who regularly supplied our tablea, tablets of ground cocoa, for Mama’s favorite chocolate drink every breakfast. There was the electrician, Manong Louie, and his wife. Tita Aning would also come with her two nephews whom she had taken under her wing after the boys’ father went to jail for killing his wife whom he suspected of having an affair with a neighbor. The elder child was mother’s godson in baptism, but both boys would receive gifts.
There were others. Through the years, Mama had been invited to stand as godparent in quite a number of weddings and baptisms. She never refused an invitation, even if sometimes she would not be able to attend the ceremony because the church was too far or she had other more pressing things to do. “It is an honor that I would not dare refuse,” she would always tell anybody who asked. Mama considered it a blessing to have another child or couple that would take her as a second mother. Most of these invitations were from old students whom she had not seen for years but came back to seek her out. She was, after all, the favorite teacher to hundreds who sat in her Grade Six classes in all the years that she had spent teaching in Mabini Central School.
Three weeks before Christmas, 1987
Every September, Flor and I received a small-sized garbage bag from Mama. We called it “Mama’s black gift bag.” We had to give it back on the last week of November—just before the day when the little black planner had to be taken out—filled with clothes and toys we had outgrown or would not use anymore.
Mama had to be ingenious. We were not rich. She only had her salary and what she got from her after-school tutorials. Neither would she ask from Papa. These were to be her presents, after all. Papa did the easy way for his own godchildren, nephews, and nieces. He went to the bank and withdrew in twenty-peso denominations. Every time somebody came for aguinaldo, he simply took out a piece from his billfold. Not mother. She went through all the trouble.
Flor and I grew up knowing that we had to give something from our possessions at the end of each year. I could not remember anymore when Mama’s gift-giving tradition started. Papa said she had been at it ever since they married. One of the earliest memories I have is from when I was five years old, with Mama and I sorting through my old books and toys, and I clutching a black plastic bag in my hand.
During the year, too, my sister and I had learned to save money in order to buy things for Mama’s “black gift bag.” One toy or a book each month from January onwards. Between us, we would collect quite a number by the time we got the “black gift bag.” We were also regulars at an ukay-ukay store outside the subdivision entrance, rummaging through piles and racks of used clothing, not for us but to fill the “black gift bag” with.
Even Papa was not spared. Two nights ago we heard him complaining over dinner when some clothes that he claimed he had not even worn got gift-wrapped. Mama told him that he would not really wear them for they were old gifts from friends and were either too large or too small his size. She knew people on her list that would fit them.
Mama taught us that if a piece of clothing was not worn for ten months and it was not something special like a wedding dress, it should be given up to others who would appreciate it more and wear it more often. The same rule applied to toys. I bought a lot of board games because I liked playing them, but they never grew into a pile, since every Christmas, I would hand over a couple for Mama’s gift collection drive.
The very gifts Mama received from her own friends got recycled. On her 40th birthday, an old friend gave Mama an toaster oven as a gift. The next Christmas, it got wrapped and was given to Aling Tess, our nanny’s Mom. “We already own one,” Mama reasoned out. “No need cluttering up the kitchen or any room in the house, for that matter, with accumulated and unused junk. They are like burdens one carries in one’s heart, making life cumbersome. Lighten your load. Minimize the clutter and you’ll be happier, you see.” When it came to her gift-collection efforts, there was always a life’s lesson to be learned or philosophy behind the act—anything to convince us.
“This shirt has faded in the collar, Mama! It would be embarrassing to give it as a gift,” I said, trying to convince Mama from giving away a favorite blue shirt that I had outgrown but still kept in the closet. It was a gift from Aunt Zeny in the States, three Christmases ago, and expensive when it was new.
“Someone would be happy owning a Lacoste shirt, even with a faded collar.” she countered. “This would fit Aling Tina’s twelve-year-old son perfectly. You saw him accompany Aling Tina the other day to deliver the tableas. Did you see how tattered his t-shirt was? Stains and moth holes in the front because they can’t afford to buy new clothes, you see. This would mean a lot to him, son. I’ll give him this along with the striped green shirt you gave me when you were twelve. I couldn’t think of anyone to give it to, then. Now he’s twelve and your old shirts would fit him. You will be blessed many times for giving away something that is dear to you. Remember what it says in the Bible about giving and receiving a hundredfold in return?” I was sold out.
Two weeks before Christmas, 1991
Mama called me to my sister’s room. Clothes, toys, and other things were laid out neatly on Flor’s bed, organized and labeled with Post-its. Rolls of wrapping paper and ribbons were on the dresser table. We started on Saturday right after breakfast, took a break for lunch, and resumed until late in the afternoon. We began again after attending mass on Sunday morning and did not stop until all gifts were wrapped, labeled, and arranged under the tree.
Flor and I rode the bus home to the province every Friday afternoon after our last classes and would be back in the college dormitory on Sunday evening. On that particular weekend, however, we had to stay home for the night to finish the gift wrapping. It meant we had to wake up at dawn the next day to catch the earliest bus and arrive to school barely in time for my first period. “It’s the last week of school before the long Christmas break and teachers are more lenient,” Mama reasoned out.
I learned to gift wrap when I was ten and since then, had been tasked to wrap all of Mama’s presents. The years developed my ability in the craft. At twelve, I could fashion fancy ribbons. One time I thought of pasting little origami animals and flowers instead of ribbons on the presents to make them look different. Flor, with her neat handwriting, wrote names on gift tags—little square pieces of construction paper with holiday-themed designs—she herself made days beforehand.
We all sat cross-legged on a mat on the floor around a low table. Flor inserted a Christmas record in her player to set the mood. We all loved the Chipmunks album above all, and it would be played more times than the others.
Mama cut the wrapper to size. She also cut strips of Scotch tape, which she handed to me as I wrapped a present. When I was done, I handed it to Flor across the table, who stuck the gift tag and placed each present carefully inside a big cardboard box. When the box was full, Mama called Papa to bring the presents downstairs and put them under the tree in the living room. It was Papa’s task to trim the tree, string the lights, and place the angel on top.
It took the whole weekend to finish wrapping all the presents. I had finished all my homework in the dormitory on Thursday afternoon knowing that Mama would be expecting me to help her the entire time I was home. On Sunday evening, when everything was done and over with, the whole family sat around the living room admiring the lit tree with its mound of wrapped presents underneath.
One week before Christmas, 2010
I had not been home for the past ten Christmases. Since my wife and I migrated to the States in ’99, I had only been able to visit twice; the first during Papa’s sixtieth birthday, and the other when we brought our daughter to the Philippines for the first time. I missed the annual gift-wrapping with Mama, but I knew I made her happier with the large box I sent her every October full of clothes, toys, and grocery items to add to her presents. As early as August, I would receive a list along with her usual letter. It looked something like the contents of the black planner:
A shirt and shorts for a five-year old (Manong Anding’s grandson), a set of pans for Manay Celia (just something cheap), a toy for Manong Louie’s ten-year-old (he likes robots, according to his father), something for Mrs. Ramirez (whatever you can think of), chocolates, bars of Dove, large Colgates, cans of Spam, Folger’s coffee (most of them like to receive those imported stuff now), some of your old shirts for the garbage collectors…
Even my six-year old daughter had become fascinated with her grandmother’s tradition after I had told her stories from my childhood. She would put something of her own into the box. Last year, she asked me if I could give her train set away since she hadn’t played with it for almost a year.
This Christmas, I was home because I had to attend Mama’s funeral. She died from complications brought about by her diabetes. She died peacefully in her sleep. It didn’t come as a shock. Three months ago, Flor called to inform me that Mama had lapsed into unconsciousness. She awoke from the coma after two weeks but never recovered her old self afterwards. It was then that I began saving for a trip home.
Hundreds of people attended the wake. Papa hired five jeepneys for those who accompanied the burial. It only confirmed for us how Mama was loved when she was alive. I could not recognize most of the faces there, but as Flor introduced me to each one, I remembered names from Mama’s list.
The morning after the funeral, I passed by Flor’s room and was surprised to see her wrapping presents. Papa was doing the ribbons. Toys, clothes, and things were laid out neatly on her bed with Post-it tags on them. Mama’s little black book was open on the dresser table beside Papa.
“This is what Mama would have liked to do if she were still with us, don’t you think?” Flor regarded my quizzical expression. “I know it is actually a little late doing this now. Mama would have been done with this three weeks ago…They will come…everyone on the list who can. I asked those who were at the funeral. The others, I called on the phone. Papa thought you’d want to join us but didn’t want to wake you up.”
“Yes,” I answered. “I’d be glad to help.” I sat down on the floor beside my sister and took the scissors from her. “You do the ribbons and I’ll do the wrapping. Papa can do the sorting.”
We were concentrated on our tasks when Des, Flor’s eight-year-old daughter, walked into the room and joined us.
“Hello, Uncle Ben.” She smiled upon seeing me. She was struggling with a black plastic bag slung over her shoulders.
Raymund P. Reyes teaches English at Colegio de San Juan de Letran in Manila. He has published his poetry and short stories in Your Impossible Voice, Torrid Literature Journal, Carbon Culture Review, Expanded Horizons, Dappled Things, Anak Sastra, as well as in various literary journals and anthologies in his native Philippines.