Cebu Memories of Holiday Magic

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It’s hard to overstate how much I love the holidays. This stems directly from my childhood growing up in the tiny island of Cebu in the Philippines. A deeply Catholic country, Christmas is the most important holiday in this nation of more than 7,000 islands. The season begins early, at the beginning of November, and lasts until early January. And, it totally transforms life in even the poorest neighborhoods.

I lived in Cebu until I was 12, and my recollection of these Christmases past is full of warmth and joy. Starting in November, the neighborhood kids would get together to form a caroling group. We would go to houses and small businesses and sing Christmas songs with the hope of getting some pennies or a piece of candy. Every night, our merry band of mischiefs would sing our little hearts out, until eventually the neighbors would tire of us and shoo us out of their front yards. Some nights, before we even sang the first song, we would be chased out of the premises. Still, the Christmas spirit was strong in our little hearts, and we happily walked down neighborhood streets belting out off-key traditional Filipino and Western songs. As an 8-year-old, I was particularly fond of “Silver Bells” and the Jackson 5 classic “Give Love on Christmas Day.”

For two weeks leading up to Christmas, the whole neighborhood would wake up early and attend dawn mass at 5 a.m. Waking up at this time might seem like a drag, but everyone loved it, especially since after mass we visited neighbors’ houses and ate the traditional breakfast of sticky rice, mango, and hot chocolate.

We would see the same faces again at midnight mass on Christmas Eve, but before that, we gathered with our relatives for the noche buena. This big feast is the highlight of the year, when each family brings a dish to share. We would eat for hours, starting in the early evening until we went to midnight mass (and then ate some more after service). We sang Christmas carols and the kids ran around the streets lighting small firecrackers. As a kid, Christmas Eve was the longest, most magical night of my life. My cousins would sleep over, though there was little sleep to be had as we were all too excited from the day’s activities. We would hang up socks on a clothesline, hoping to get sweets, but inevitably, an older cousin would stuff actual coals inside the socks as a joke.

On Christmas morning, we would open presents, and my sister and I always got the same thing every year: a six-pack of underwear each and an orange, an uncommon and expensive fruit in that part of the world. Our parents didn’t have much money, but it didn’t matter. We got something practical and magical, and we didn’t want for anything. After breakfast, the older cousins gathered the younger kids to pay a visit to our godparents all across the city, from whom we usually received candy or small coins to put in our piggy banks. The rest of the day is spent singing more Christmas songs and having a party at another relative’s house, where the feasting starts all over again.

There was nothing commercialized about Christmas where I grew up. Other than the orange and underwear, we didn’t receive any other presents. What I remember most about this time of the year was the feeling of togetherness, of breaking bread with family and neighbors, the smell of candles and incense at midnight mass, the thrill of firecrackers, and most of all the singing, which can be heard in every corner of the neighborhood, disparate voices turning into a chorus, embodying the season of love and joy.

Tags: Christmas, Travel, holiday season, Friends

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Genevie Durano

Genevie Durano has worked in various magazines in New York City, and currently is the food editor for Las Vegas Weekly magazine. See Full Bio

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