Food, faith, firecrackers
[Holiday traditions This is the first in a series of stories about how local residents with backgrounds in other countries observed holidays back home, and how their roots affect them as they celebrate this Christmas season.]
Apples were some of the best Christmas treats received by Ivy Fernandez, Rosalie Brannon and Miriam Miller when they were children.
The fruit doesn’t grow in the Philippines, where the McMinnville women grew up. It was hard to find and expensive, making it just right for godparents or grandparents to hand out at Christmas.
Miller, who has lived in McMinnville since 1979, recalled receiving a single apple one year. She carried it in her pocket for several days, saving it for just the right occasion. She still remembers how delicious it tasted when she finally ate it.
Fernandez was excited to see apples everywhere when she came to the U.S. to take a nursing exam. After she married and moved to Oregon with her husband, they settled into a house with an apple tree in the yard.
When she sent photos of the tree home to her family in Manila, “they were so excited,” she said. But they, like she, are still amazed that Americans take the fruit for granted, even letting many apples fall to the ground unused.
Today, Fernandez and her friends can have apples anytime they like. But they still love to prepare the foods of their native country.
“I cook Filipino food every day,” Fernandez said.
“Tons of food,” Brannon said with a laugh.
Noodles, called pansit, short ribs, caramelly sweet rice cakes made with coconut milk and other dishes are a central part of all get-togethers. When visitors arrive, they are quickly offered food and drink — it would be rude of the hosts to not offer, just as it would be impolite for the guests to refuse.
The women said they find some familiar ingredients in Portland-area Asian markets, but other things can just be replaced: tree-ripe tropical fruit such as mangoes, rambutans and lanzones; pork and chicken from animals grazing in the yard not long before dinner.
They love living in McMinnville, the women said, but they’ll never forget their native country.
Fernandez grew up in Bulacan Province on Luzon, the largest of the 7,017 islands in the Republic of the Philippines. She also spent time in nearby Manila, the capital, where her family has a food business.
As a child, she said, she dreamed of someday moving to the U.S., because, to Filipinos, it is the land of opportunity.
She studied computer technology, then nursing, believing the latter would give her a better chance of finding a steady job in the U.S. She was excited when she and three friends had a chance to fly to California to take the nursing exam.
It was a more exciting trip than she expected. While visiting California, she met Randy Fernandez, an American of Filipino descent.
“I told him, ‘I”m going back unless we get married,’” she said. Now they have a 5-year-old son, Daniel, and a 5-month-old daughter, Alyssa, who is doted on by Brannon, Miller and other “aunties” from the local Filipino community.
“My family couldn’t believe it that I stayed,” said Fernandez, who opened an adult foster home when she moved to McMinnville. “But I’m lucky. It’s really nice here.”
Miller grew up in Moises Padilla in the province of Negros Occidental on Bisaya Island, south of Luzon. Later, she lived in Manila before moving to the U.S.
Her husband was serving in the military when they met in the Philippines. They married and returned to his hometown, Eugene.
The Millers, who have two sons, came to McMinnville, where he managed the Bi Mart store. He’s now retired.
Brannon grew up in Pagasa M’lang Cotabato, a rural area on Mindanao, the second largest of the Philippine islands and even farther south than Bisani. She met her husband when he was serving in the military and came with him when he returned to his base in San Diego in 1995.
They’ve moved several times following his job in the federal prison system. They arrived in Sheridan in 1998, moved to Louisiana in 2001, and returned here in 2002.
These days Brannon, like her friends, celebrates the holidays in a way that’s more western than Filipine. Her family doesn’t stay up all night on the 24th of December, as she did growing up, Brannon said. Instead of the yellow and purple rice cakes in banana leaves she ate back then, her husband fixes an American-style breakfast on Christmas morning.
And they don’t set off fireworks here. It’s a beloved Christmas tradition in the Philippines — not sparklers and cherry bombs like U.S. children play with, but large fireworks shows in every neighborhood.
In Brannon’s village, many families couldn’t afford elaborate ready-made fireworks, she said. Instead, they hollowed out bamboo rods, filled them with kerosene and lighted them: BOOM. “You can hear the noise like a mile away,” she said.
Miller also recalled her brothers preparing bamboo “firecrackers” during the holiday season. They often started the year missing eyebrows and lashes, she said, laughing.
Fireworks and other noisemakers on New Year’s Eve are part of a good-luck superstition, Fernandez said.
“They think the more loud it is, the more it will chase out bad spirits,” she said. “The noise is amazing.”
Miller added, “People make noise with whatever they have — pots and pans, whatever.”
Filipinos also jump at midnight as the old year gives way to the new. They prepare for the coming year with coins in their pockets and new clothes, symbolizing luck and riches.
“But it didn’t work for me!” Miller joked.
New Year’s is part of a holiday season that starts, in the Philippines, back in September and extends through Three Kings Day in early January. “It’s really a season there,” Fernandez said.
Brannon noted that her sister, who still lives in the Philippines, put up her Christmas tree on Oct. 1. Miller said her nieces undoubtedly have theirs up, as well.
The Christmas trees are artificial, since firs don’t grow in the tropics. Many families decorate with artificial poinsettias, too, although fresh ones are available in Manila.
All the decorating and singing takes place despite the fact that it’s 85 degrees outside. That’s the average temperature year-round in the Philippines, located southeast of mainland Asia.
Filipinos, descendants of people who came from of Malaysia, Indonesia, Asia, Spain and other places, are overwhelmingly Catholic. A few are Muslim or members of other Christian denominations.
Virtually everyone celebrates Christmas as a religious holiday, not a commercial one. “It’s family-oriented; it’s about Jesus,” Miller said. “I never heard of Santa until I came here.”
The most intense part of the Filipino Christmas season is in December, when Catholic churches hold a series of early-morning Masses. Starting Dec. 16, families make a point of attending the 4 a.m. Masses for nine days in a row.
Even children are eager to arise early for the Mass, because tradition holds that faithful attendance equals good fortune. “If you finish the nine days of going, your wish will be granted,” Brannon said, remembering how she would wish for new clothing or money.
Besides, Miller said, “We’re excited as kids because after church, then there are pastries and sweets.”
Church-goers exit onto festival streets, with vendors offering bibingka, the special sweet rice cakes served in banana leaves and topped with butter, sugar, pineapple or other fruit, cheese or salted duck eggs.
During December, children also go caroling from house to house, Brannon and Fernandez said. They’ll sing tunes Americans would recognize, such as “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World” and “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” in both Tagalog, the local language, and English, which they learn starting in elementary school.
They accompany themselves with simple instruments. Fernandez recalled how she and other children would make their own jingle bells by flattening metal bottle caps, then stringing many together with wire. Brannon said children in her village often used bamboo sticks to tap out rhythms.
Groups might carry lanterns shaped like a star, symbolizing the star that led the three kings to the manger holding Baby Jesus. Fernandez said her childhood lantern had a candle in it; today, lanterns usually are electric.
Other decorations are similar to those in the West. Many are handmade.
Gift-giving isn’t as elaborate as it is here; no huge piles of presents. But school students exchange gifts, and families give gifts of clothing and money.
Before Christmas, banks are kept busy exchanging old money for new. “Everyone wants to give gifts of new bills,” Fernandez said.
Children also are eager for the gifts their godparents and grandparents hand out, in a tradition called genaldo. Those presents aren’t elaborate: 50 cents from a godparent makes a child’s face light up, the women said.
Godparents are very important in the Filipino Catholic tradition. Not only do they promise, at christening, to raise children if parents cannot, they also take on the very important responsibility — important to kids, at least —of giving gifts. After children grow up, they, in turn, are expected to remember their godparents with gifts.
The Christmas celebrations build toward Dec. 24, when everyone gathers for a midnight Mass to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Before walking to church, families set out dishes of food so it will be ready when they return home. Doors are left open, and anyone may come in to visit and share the bounty.
“When I lived in Manila, we’d have a block party with dancing,” Brannon recalled.
Filipinos catch a few hours of sleep in the early morning. But then they get up, dress in new clothes — or, at least, their best clothing — to celebrate Christmas itself.
“We have reunions, go to our godparents’ and grandparents’, go visiting,” Fernandez said.
It’s a happy day in a long, happy season.
“Everyone is happy,” Miller said. “Maybe they don’t have enough to eat, maybe they have troubles, but they’re happy.”
Contact Starla Pointer at 503-687-1263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.