I remember those Christmases. They were my earliest, concrete experiences of how politics directly affect our personal lives.
They were the Christmases during the Martial Law years in this country. They were black and blue and bleak.
Like people in my generation, I grew up with Christmas symbols that made this season so much special and wonderful: apples , grapes and oranges; walnuts and chestnuts, ham and warm chocolates. And oh, yes, the quezo de bola! Some experiences I shall keep in my heart forever, like the scent of cooking ham wafting through the house. Or the letters to Santa that we placed on the altar on the first week of December which disappeared a few days later, presumably already picked up by Santa’s elves. Or the way we’d crack the walnuts because we had no nutcracker – we’d put a piece near the hinges of the door and opened the door to crack it open. I also treasure waking up on Christmas day to find Santa’s gift for me, exactly the ones I wrote him for.
There was a giant crèche in the public plaza, the figures cut out from lawanit. There were public shows and games. I can still hear the shouts and shrieks that rang out and smell the earthy, biological smell of newly-cut grass.
Then Martial Law happened.
The sugar industry went into its worst crisis. Sugar prices dropped way below production cost as the country lost the American market with the end of the Laurel-Langley agreement and the Marcos clique took control of the industry.
The Christmas symbols disappeared one by one. The yuletide experience changed. The ham was still there [I can only imagine now how my parents must have struggled to keep it there.] But the walnuts had to go. And so did the quezo de bola [I would eat that again many, many years later, when I started working]
By Presidential fiat, the apples and grapes and oranges completely disappeared. The country’s dollar reserves went precariously low as the Martial Law mafia went on a merry spree of borrowing and we could hardly produce the dollars to pay them, so Marcos banned these Christmas fruits to conserve our dollars. Or perhaps the dollars were reserved to pay for the loans they recklessly spent. I did not understand it then but the absence of apples made a difference for my Christmas. There was only one time I remember there were apples that came. This was the time an uncle who had connections with the Marcos family brought some home and shared with everybody. Our family got one, precious piece which my mother cut and gave all to us; she and father did not get a share.
How generous the Marcos family was to have shared those apples with my uncle, I had thought then. I never thought of the other reality that those precious apples in fact told: while the rest of the country could not eat apples and could barely see through Christmas, that family had more than they could eat, they shared them with the lesser mortals in their circle.
On many of these Christmases, there were no blinkering lights. Of course they were not as cheap as they are now but that’s not the reason why they went out in those years. It was because there was no electricity.
Santa still came, but he no longer gave exactly what we asked; in fact they now looked suspiciously like they did not come from North Pole,
The belen in the plaza disappeared, too and the stage in the public square went silent. Somehow, we managed to put up decorations but these were a whole lot different. The tinsel and glitters had to be used sparingly if at all. Crepe, Japanese paper and colored cellophane were in. Bakhaw and bilaho became favorite Christmas trees. Native kakanins and humble fare started dominating the noche buena table. And ketchup in spaghetti started getting popular.
These may be musings of an aging man looking back at better and happier times, yes, but then again, maybe we could pick up a lesson or two here.
Christmas 2018 happens before crucial elections that could mean our redemption – or continued descent to damnation. The forces and spirit of Martial Law are about to rule again, if we allow them.
I may not have been tortured. Nor jailed. But I and the rest of my generation are victims too. They did something worse than break our bones.
They stole our Christmas.*