I love my monito but I won’t tell you.
Huddled together in my grandparents’ house, at the living room to be exact, a loud rendition of this song would be sung by everyone as we—my cousins, titos and titas, mom, younger brother, along with Nanay and Tatay (my grandparents)—anticipate who the lucky recipient of the gift is. A chorus of ooh’s and ah’s or even just loud peals of laughter would then follow right after the gift is handed, its mysterious owner revealed. To an outsider, it would probably make one think twice if these really are adults in their late 30’s and 40’s or just a bunch of teenage girls and boys who are as excited as someone who had just received a present, their giddiness evident in their big grins. I don’t know how or when it started but it has always been like this in our family, on my father’s side, every Christmas. And how I hope it would always be.
Even when I was a kid, Christmas was the holiday I most looked forward to. Aside from the usual Christmas festivities, two from our family, Nanay and Ate Fretze, celebrate their birthday a few days before and after Christmas, respectively. I have learned to prepare my stomach for heavy dinners, usually consisting of homba (adobong baboy), pansit (for long life), and spaghetti. “Diet” never existed in our vocabulary. Yet, among them all, the main highlight of the celebrations would be our Monito/Monita Gift Giving.
Unsure of how it came to be, I became the so-called “Chairman of the Programs,” a term coined by Mommy Whennieh, my tita. This entailed the responsibility of writing the names of each family member present, from my grandparents to my cousins, on a rolled piece of paper and having them pick their monito or monita randomly. This would usually be done when they would visit my grandparents’ house after arriving from Cebu, where they live, a few days before Christmas. Being given this task has one secret quirk, a conspiracy I have with my mom. Instead of picking a random name, we would choose our monito (or monita), including one for my brother, and pick his or her name from the jar in secret. That person is someone whom we think is easy to pick a gift for in order to make gift-shopping easier. Sometimes, it would be four whenever my dad’s home, which isn’t that often due to his job overseas.
After all the hullaballoo caused by last minute preparations and shopping mall trips come the big day—Christmas Eve, the day of our gift-giving. Dinner is served at our grandparents’ house, where everyone would come in their best clothes and eat mostly ordered dishes from JJ’s Seafood, a restaurant where we usually order food during special occasions since there are only a few in our family who are fond of cooking, or maybe they’re just too busy to do so. Sometimes, if people are up to it, there’d be dessert and other sorts of carb-filled food—biko (sweet sticky brown rice), ice cream, buko pandan, or special lasagna baked by Tita Penny.
At around 9 o’clock, the TV is turned off and lively music is played as everyone gathers in the living room. A prayer usually led by Tatay then signals the start of the night’s festivities. Before the giving out of gifts, the giver is supposed to give a clue on who his/her monito or monita is, usually a description or an event that happened between them. I find it funny how everyone throws in their guesses of who it could be (“Gwapo? Ah, si Adrianne siguro na!” Gwapo? Ah, that must be Adrianne!). Peals of laughter and a series of hugs will be given once the gift is handed out; and the cycle then continues. A series of enthusiastic “Thank you’s” is exchanged after everyone has opened their gifts, their gift wrappers scattered on the floor.
When Ken, our youngest cousin in the bunch (of a dozen), was already old enough to talk, he’d sometimes recite a poem afterwards, to the admiration of everyone. Usually, people would come up for another round of food (if there’s still some left) after the program and the usual chitchats and lively conversations between family members who haven’t seen each other for a long time continue. The elders (or young at heart, as I’ve always thought of them) position themselves at the dining table while my cousins and I watch TV shows or get busy surfing the net, playing the PSP, and whatnot. By 2am, Tita Jenny and the others start to say their final Christmas greetings and then leave for their own homes. It was yet another Christmas Day celebration.
Like every holiday or celebration, tables are cleaned, bags are packed, and we then return to our usual routine. Looking back, I sometimes think the whole thing required too much effort. Having to think of what gifts to buy and when to buy them, add to that the long lines and large crowd in the malls, kind of made me feel like it was such a hassle. How I wish I could go back to those times.
There are some traditions, no matter how fun or important they have become, that are bound, in one way or another, to be broken. This was one of them.
The first blow would have to be the first Christmas without Tita Penny in 2004. She had died of a kind of lymphoma, a rare kind of skin cancer about a week before Christmas (my mom broke the news to me while I was studying for our quarterly test the next day) and it really made an impact on us, especially on Nanay who celebrated her birthday a day before she passed away. Because of what just happened, I didn’t think the whole gift-giving would still go on but, eventually, it did. I remember Ate Daye, the eldest among us cousins, leading the opening prayer and how we were all trying hard to stop our tears from falling. Some were unsuccessful though, including me.
The show, as they say, must go on, which is why we mustered our courage, put on a brave face, and tried to have as much fun as possible. I’d like to think that it was how Tita Penny would have wanted it anyway. I’ve always seen her as one of the funny and loud titas that I have. That time, I felt sad because she wouldn’t be able to give me and my brother Christmas money anymore. Also, I thought of how we won’t be able to taste her famous lasagna during family gatherings anymore.
Five years after that, in 2009, we were missing another member again. This time it was Nanay. She passed away early in the year. The first Christmas without her, a few days after her birthday, was just as sad or maybe, even worse. Since most of us in the family are close to her, being the Nanay or mother to everyone, it had a pretty big impact on us.
Once again, we were all trying to hold back our tears but our sadness was too strong and overpowered our desire to appear brave. Aside from the usual catching-up that was the topic of everyone’s conversations, they were all reminiscing about what ended up as Nanay’s last birthday celebration the previous year. “Luya na gyud kayo to si Nanay adto.” (She was already very weak during that time), they pondered about her last days, their eyes in a faraway gaze. You see, it was quite an emotional rollercoaster for us during those days because she would appear better one day and worse the next. I think that was the last Christmas we all spent together in Tatay’s house.
Time never really stopped for anyone, leaving us no choice but to go and move on with our lives. Tita Jenny and Ate Fretze moved to Cebu for Ate’s college. Ate Chad, Mommy Whennieh’s daughter, soon stayed with them in order to find a job. Tito Ondoy and his family became too busy with work and school to come to Bohol. With the changing circumstances, it was harder to bring everyone together in order to spend Christmas like we used to. What used to be a festive and loud event eventually turned into a quieter and smaller one. Christmas came to be just my mom, my younger brother, me, Tatay, Mommy Whennieh, and Daddy Casto. We’d only have dinner, admittedly not having as much food as before. By 12:30am, we would already start cleaning up.
Although it may sound bad but I have come, in a way, to become wary of December. I’m afraid that we would be missing another member in the family. Then again, I wonder if this is how the family can come together again just like before. Yet, that’s the thing about “before’s” and “what was,” right? No matter how much you try to do it again, it’s just not the same.
When I have my own family, I would like to continue this family tradition. Thinking about who my future monito or monita would be and what gift he or she might give me excites me. I wonder if they know me enough to pick out the things that I really like (although I believe gifts are meant to be appreciated no matter what). Also, this time, I won’t cheat in choosing my monito or monita. I promise.
I made this for Workshop class last sem and since it’s Christmas-y, decided to post it. Sorry, I didn’t have time to really edit it, though. Comments would be very much appreciated.
On another note, I’m finally spending Christmas with a complete family this year. My dad’s home after about more than 5 years, I think. All I know is that my brother and I were kind of small (grade school, I think) since he was last here. Because of his work, he’d always have to leave for it at around December, sometimes two days before Christmas so, I know, I admit it does make me sad.
But we’re all here this year. Even though it’s not as lively or grand or as loud as my previous Christmases, it doesn’t matter because I’ve always wanted our family to be complete especially this season, when it’s all about spending time with the family and whatnot.
So, merry Christmas to you! 🙂