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Everything to thank for

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When I think about Christmas, it hits me each passing day with increasing gravity that I will be spending it alone. I take this with dispassion. It does not matter, I tell myself. And somewhere in the fathoms of me, I smile with a firm nonchalance I’ve taken at this idea of exquisite solitariness surrounded by holiday tinsel and cheer.

Of course, when I mention this to people who ask me where I will be for Christmas Eve, I get a look of passing pity, and I know exactly what they are thinking: the holidays are designed for rituals of gathering, and I am the oddball that elicits–what? Pity? Suspicion? I do my best to allay their misgivings. “The thing is, my mother is in Los Angeles,” I tell them, “This will be my first Christmas without her–and I doubt I shall be sharing noche buena with the others in my family.”

(My second Christmas, actually. Years ago, when I knew no better, I spent a solitary Christmas in the dark snowy nighttime of Hokkaido in Japan, where there was no Christmas–and there, at the approach of midnight, in the silence that begat only more silence, I cried myself to sleep. How amusing that young man seems to me now, so brittle with worry and want.)

So yes, I tell them that my mother is somewhere in the sunny wonderland of Los Angeles. When we–the family, which means all my married brothers and their families and I–would gather for noche buena on the 24th of each December, it was a familial exercise we did for her. She demanded it.

But we are such an unsentimental family in many ways. All of us have flown the nest, and to assuage our guilt of having donned so much of Western traditions in the habits of family, we would march to Mother’s place in Bantayan, go through the motions of staying, eat her feast, and before the fireworks threatened to make the highways impassable with noise and smoke and the smell of burnt sulfur, we would kiss her goodbye and goodnight, and off we would go to our individual lives.

We don’t do gifts. I don’t remember anybody in my family ever giving me, or each other, Christmas gifts as a matter of course. (Except one time, my brother Edwin once bought me a computer, when I was a kid.) We give gifts randomly throughout the year, but as a Christmas tradition, no.

I do remember making my sister-in-law Daisy a mixed tape once, a recording of Meryl Streep reading The Velveteen Rabbit. I do remember the occasional manito/manita, but never as a rule. This has been my kind of Christmas for years. Quite unsentimental, which has taught me well.

Of course, we make an effort to sweeten it with Christmas songs and decorations and a good feast, perhaps even snapshot opportunities with smiling faces, but…

“But surely,” they will continue, “you’re spending the holidays with others in your family.”

“Well, my brothers are everywhere, some place else. Switzerland. There are two in Los Angeles. The ones in Dumaguete–they have their own families to share this Christmas with.” Without the fulcrum that is my mother, it feels remarkably odd to even consider.

“Cousins?”

“I don’t want to bother them.”

“Oh my.”

“It’s all right, really.”

I don’t blame them their worry. I know where it comes from. I’ve been there. Some of my best memories of Christmas involve a halo-halo of family and friends and the magic that sometimes happen when you put together people who truly care for each other in a room or a house. Some accidental merriment is bound to ensue.

One time, it was my eldest brother Rocky, fresh from Cebu, deciding to shower us kids those gold 25 centavo coins, all shining and newly-minted. We raised such merry ruckus, all that laughter and elbowing and everything else.

Another time, my brother Edwin took all of us on a trek to a department store downtown, and told us: “Choose the best Christmas tree in the store, the one you want.” The merchandise was made of plastic, of course, but it was our first Christmas tree after years and years of poverty–and its huge size and its possibilities for decoration overwhelmed us. We brought the tree home to our old house in Sibulan, decked it with ornaments and light. When it finally twinkled, we gathered around it, like it was a beacon of so much hope.

I was a kid in most of these memories. But Christmas is different when you’re young. It has an inner, throbbing magic for children. When we grow up, we are forever exiled from it, possessed only with the inescapable feeling that Christmases past were always better, shinier. The things we have left are our nostalgia.

Nostalgia will not be in the cards for me this year. I stake my claim on that alone-ness, that beautiful solitariness. But I don’t mean to make it sound sad: the word “alone” carries with it a universe of ennui–and there’s massive literature out there that has mapped out the word to contain our endless capacities for the morose and the dramatic–and so perhaps the right phrase to use may be “spending it by my lonesome”. In either case, the number is singular. And I shall take that fact with an embrace.

It is a beautiful thing to embrace. It has taught me quiet. It has taught me to appreciate the rare moments of togetherness when they do happen out of the kinetic order of the world, and not out of habit or force. It has taught me to pray. I shall thank my unsentimental family for all that. In a sense, this is the best Christmas gift they’ve ever given me.

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