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 fills the room as my cousins, titos and titas, mom, younger brother, along with my grandparents—Nanay and Tatay—anticipate who the lucky recipient of the gift is. “Siya ang head of the family. Saba siya unsahay pero okay lang,” (He is the head of the family. He’s quite loud sometimes but it’s okay) I said as I described my monito and was now moving around, ready to give my gift. A chorus of ooh’s and ah’s or even just loud peals of laughter then followed right after I handed it over, its mysterious owner revealed. “Si Tatay!” If one were walking in the streets and happened to pass by, it would probably seem to him/her that the loud squeals and cheers came from teenage girls and boys when really, they were adults in their late 30’s or 40’s who just so happened to be excited upon receiving their presents, their giddiness also evident in their wide grins. This was how I always remembered what Christmas was like. This is how I always wanted it to be.
Even when I was a kid, Christmas was the holiday I most looked forward to. For my father’s side of the family, it wasn’t just Christmas. It was also a season of our own festivities: Nanay’s birthday on the 18th, Tita Jenny and Tito Pidoy’s wedding anniversary on the 21st, and Ate Fretze’s birthday on the 27th. Christmas week was jam packed. I have learned to prepare my stomach for heavy dinners, which usually consists of homba (adobong baboy), pansit (for long life), ice cream, and any other food family members decide to bring. “Diet” was a foreign word to us during that time. Yet, among all the activities that made up our week, I think the main highlight of the celebrations is our Monito/Monita Gift Giving.
After quite a few years of doing it, I was suddenly appointed “Chairman of the Programs,” a term coined by Mommy Whennieh, my tita. This meant that I had the responsibility of writing the names of each family member who will be present during the event—from my grandparents to my cousins—on a piece of paper, rolling it, and then keeping it in a small container. When the members would drop by the house a few days before Christmas, usually after arriving from Cebu, I would then have them pick their monito or monita randomly. I’m not sure if they know this but 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) for the family and pick his or her name from the jar in secret. We usually choose someone who we think is easy to pick a gift for in order to make the trip to the mall easier.
After all the hullaballoo caused by last minute preparations and hectic shopping mall trips come the big day—Christmas Eve, the day of our gift-giving. Dinner is served at our grandparents’ house, with everyone coming in their best casual clothes and eating mostly ordered dishes from JJ’s Seafood, a restaurant where we usually order food during special occasions, and some dishes prepared by the few members who are actually inclined towards cooking. Sometimes, if people are up to it, there’d be desserts 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 upbeat music is played as everyone would gather in the living room. A prayer, usually led by Tatay, 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 a memorable event they both shared. It’s funny how everyone would throw in their guesses of who it could be.
“Gwapo? Ah, si Adrianne siguro na!” (Gwapo? Ah, that must be Adrianne!)
“Dili. Basin si Patrick. Pwede pud si Ken.” (No. It might be Patrick or even Ken.)
Everyone would then erupt in squeals and laughter after finding out if their guesses were correct or not upon the delivery of the gift to its owner. This cycle then continues until everyone is finished. A series of enthusiastic “Thank you’s” and warm hugs is exchanged after everyone has opened their gifts, their gift wrappers and boxes 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. After the program, people would come up for another round of food 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, get busy surfing the net or 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. Yet, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. How I wish I could go back to those times.
No matter how fun or important they may have become, there are just some traditions that are bound to be broken one way or another. Pluto is now off the list of planets in the Solar System. Ateneo now accepts women in the college level. Hey, my dad might even be there during my next graduation. Change is inevitable and this was no exception.
The first blow would have to be the first Christmas without Tita Penny back in 2004. She 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 Math for our quarterly exam the next day) and it affected us deeply, especially Nanay who had just celebrated her birthday a day before Tita passed away. Because of what just happened, I didn’t think the whole gift-giving would still push through but, eventually, it did. The mood was a bit more quiet, more subdued. 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. No matter how much we kept our composure, some were unsuccessful, 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, with her sharp wit and laugh that seemed to echo in the room. As petty as it may be, it was that time when I felt sad because she wouldn’t be able to give me and my brother Christmas money anymore. Also, I began to miss her famous lasagna. Hers was one of the best ones I’ve ever tried and now, we won’t be able to serve it anymore during family gatherings.
Five years after, in 2009, we were missing another family member again. This time it was Nanay. After a few times of being in and out of the hospital, she passed away early in the year, in March. I admit that period was emotionally draining, since everyone of us in the family would be called to gather in her room for quite a number of times, never really knowing if that would really be our last moment with her or not. The first Christmas without her, a few days after her birthday, was just as sad or maybe, even worse. For us cousins, she was our grandmother; for my titas and titos, she was their mother. Since most of us in the family are close to her, her death deeply affected us.
Once again, we were all trying to hold back our tears but our sadness was too strong and it overpowered our desire to appear brave. Aside from the usual catching-up done by the elders, almost all of us were reminiscing about our moments with her. “Luya na gyud kaayo to si Nanay adto.” (She was already very weak during that time.) As they pondered about her last days, their eyes were often in a faraway gaze, their thoughts somewhere else. After the festivities were done, I saw them off the gate as they left for their respective houses, helped my mom clean up the mess in Tatay’s house, and as I turned off the lights in the living room, I couldn’t help but wonder if that would be the last Christmas I’d have wherein we were that complete. It was.
It may sound bad but I have come, in a way, to be wary of December. Although the holiday spirit is still there, I can’t help but still feel a certain void somewhere, the empty chairs reminding me of family members I used to laugh with and happier days we used to have. As unreasonable as it may sound, I’m afraid that we would again be missing another member in the family sometime soon, death taking them away from us. Then again, I wonder if this is how the family can come together again just like before, since it would mean everyone would come home. Although we sometimes visit our cousins in Cebu and spend Christmas there, having our own mini-gathering and dinner, it will only be a shadow, an echo of a time when we were much happier and complete. It’s just not the same.
Whether we like it or not, time never really stops for anyone, leaving us no choice but to go and move on with our lives. So, we did. Tita Jenny and Ate Fretze moved to Cebu for Ate’s college. Ate Chad, Mommy Whennieh’s daughter, soon followed and stayed with them in order to find a job. Tito Ondoy and his family became too occupied with work and school and prevented them from coming to Bohol. As the years increased, our number dwindled. With the changing circumstances, it became 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, Tito Pidoy, Mommy Whennieh, and Daddy Casto. On rare occasions, my dad would be there, too. To celebrate, we would only have a simple dinner, admittedly not having as much food as before. As early as 12:30am, we would already start cleaning up, a far cry from before which usually lasted way after midnight. Although it took a bit of time to get used to, I’ve slowly learned to accept the fact that these changes were inevitable and that I—we—had no choice but to live with it.
When I have my own family, I would like to continue this tradition. Thinking about who my future monito or monita would be and what gift he or she might give me excites me and hopefully, my future family members will feel the same, too. What joy it would be for them the love and warmth of spending time with your family, the same feeling I felt whenever we had our Christmas celebrations. I wonder if they know me well 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.
Something I put off posting since I had a slow connection back home but now that I have a better one, here it is. 🙂 Tell me what you think.