Last year, when the economic meltdown was just a niggling rumor, we bought a 9.3-kilo turkey. It was too big—for the four of us—we had it for six meals.
Our chef JR’s ingenuity made each meal different from the other. So I guess you could say, the turkey was worth it.
This year, it seems sinful, if not unconscionable, to buy another gargantuan turkey. The peso has weakened and a shaky 2009 looms. We entertain the idea of scrapping an almost twenty-year tradition, and instead buy the biggest chicken. But in the end we compromise on a 6.5-kilo turkey.
It’s not as if we are turkey fanatics. But the bird keeps us working together for at least twenty four hours, which is rare. From the supermarket, we go to three other stores, battling holiday traffic, to buy the ingredients for the stuffing. As JR prepares and cooks, we kibitz and give our unsolicited opinions, which are often left as, well, opinions. While the turkey is in the oven, we wait with high expectation and fevered anticipation.
JR does not disappoint; this is his best year yet! The turkey is melt-in-your-mouth perfection. The meat is so tender, it renders a carving knife useless.
Around the table, we give thanks to the Messiah for our family and the provision and, most of all, for His grace to come and save wretched souls on that very first Christmas.
“The first Christmas was in a lowly manger; it was not luxurious,” was my friend Sonia's yearly reminder to me before she went home to Jesus. On the dot, she'd say this on or before November 30, the time I would be preparing to put up my tree.
“My tree is never luxurious!" I would retort. She knew of my personal tradition of putting up a differently-themed tree every year. “It’s festive because that's how I feel on Christmas."
“Just make sure your tree—or any décor—captures the true meaning of Christmas.”
Every Christmas after her passing, I am reminded of her words when I put up my tree. This year, I kept it as simple as I possibly could.
I put up a thanksgiving tree. I trimmed it with blinking lights used many times over in the past, and green and red stockings (old stocks on sale), and stuffed these stockings with all the blessings I want to thank the Lord for.
As some stories of Christmas celebrations of yore tell us—“red” stands for the blood Jesus shed for sinful mankind. And “green” stands for the new life we have if we believe in Him.
Into these stockings went replicas of my new books, photos of family, little presents from friends, and tiny gift boxes representing all the other blessings I couldn’t shrink to hang up the tree.
“For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might be rich.” 2 Corinthians 8:9 (KJV)
That, in a nutshell, had been my friend Sonia’s yearly Christmas reminder.
Thank you, Sonia.
Christmas is almost here. Capiz parols are brightly shining.
And one thing is bothering me. Medicants are ringing our doorbell and knocking at our gate, singing a line from a Christmas carol and yelling "Merry Christmas," asking for alms. Some don't even bother singing at all. They just incessantly ring the doorbell till they get a response. If there is no response, they exclaim in loud voices, "Hey, Merry Christmas!"
They're the rough, serious version of "trick or treat."
I am ambivalent about this: whether to give cash or a gift or a goodie; or simply ignore them; or report them to the police for invasion of privacy. Moving to a gated community or an exclusive enclave is not a viable option.
Last Christmas and the other Christmases before that, we gave goodies to the first knocker on our door and in minutes, more knockers flocked to our gate. Every knocker in all the slum areas of surrounding neighborhoods suddenly descended upon us—every single hour, and every single day till the New Year.
The security guard simply scratches his head when admonished about allowing people "caroling." He mutters sheepishly, "Ma'am," it is Christmas."
Our speaker in last Sunday's worship service adds to my ambivalence. He asked, "Would a millionaire from Forbes Park give up everything for a lazy beggar in Payatas (a very poor area in Manila)? He wouldn't. Nobody would. No millionaire would part with anything he owns for someone so undeserving. But two thousand years ago, Someone did. He who owns the world shed His blood and gave up everything—including his life—to sinful people on earth.
"That Someone taught us what love is all about. It is that love which we celebrate at Christmas.”
What's a measly sum to give to door knockers? What's a small gift to hand out to beggars? What's a small smile to mask our annoyance?
I have no energy or enough gray matter to intellectualize or argue the point. But two thousand years ago, people didn't ask for favors. They didn't go knocking at heaven's door, asking for God's love.
God loved us first, and it was totally and purely out of this love for us that He chose to become poor, so that through his poverty, we might become rich.
So how do we emulate God's love on Christmas? By turning away door knockers? And in so doing, we tell them that they shouldn't make Christmas an excuse to extort and blackmail people into giving as the God of love did?
"Enrich others this Christmas," our speaker ended his talk, "give to someone undeserving."
I am asking for extra grace to do that, as I now hear yet another ringing of our doorbell, with yet another irreverent shout of "Merry Christmas!"
Anything and everything Kris Aquino does make the headlines. So when she chooses to read my book, “No Lipstick for Mother,” to children at the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Read-along, the book lands on the front page.
Now I can say I am in the same league as Manny Pacquiao, the Senate, the pushers and users of the Con-Ass, the First Gentleman, and Kris Aquino. Oh, the company I keep!
Seriously, when I start to get cynical, I pray hard for a grateful heart.
Early last Friday morning, as I scan (a daily ritual) the front pages of about five newspapers—before reading the details and columns and digging in the crosswords—I find this!
I text Aleks of OMF. He is just as surprised. Before I could finish one puzzle, he e-mails me the scanned front page and the e-versions of the same news.
My heart bubbles over with gratitude for all the surprises the God of grace continues to spring on me. This latest one is the headline on the front page of my mind.
(Photos by Philippine Daily Inquirer)
“Sister Grace!” chirped a youthful voice on the phone.
“Who is this please?” I asked, thinking it might be one of the young people in our church, where everyone calls me Sister.
“Sister Remy!” she said, her vibrant voice belying her age. She is in her 90’s.
Remy was a church mate long, long ago. But she moved to a new place and we never saw her again.
“I was just listening to the radio and the announcers were talking to someone named Grace Chong who has written several books. Could that be, by any chance, you?”
“Yup,” I said, chuckling. Her voice’s subtext was it-isn’t-you-but-it’s-a-good-reason-to-reconnect.
“Wow!” she said, still unbelieving. “So many things have happened since I left the church. I’m glad I found your phone number." And she went on to talk about her good health and continuing journey with the Lord in her twilight years.
The radio is indeed a powerful medium. Advertisers prefer television, but radio can reach exact markets more intimately.
Remy’s call reminded me of my radio days when I was in college. My parents were sending me a monthly allowance that could last only a week or so. My stint at DZUP (and the UP Philippine Collegian, the University of the Philippines' newspaper) would tide me over from month to month.
I must have had a good radio voice in those days because I was one of two chosen to host two programs a day. A believer of grace, I think it was God’s way of helping me survive. It was an experience I relished, mostly because I got to write my own scripts. The writing charmed me more than the announcing.
After graduation, I taught in a university in Baguio. Again, the Giver of grace led me to the local radio station and there I got a job as a DJ; again, to augment the beginning income of a fresh graduate.
And today, as I write books (and blogs), I get to be interviewed on radio.
It never fails. People call to say they heard me on the air.
Talking to the mike, I could see images of the radio booths of my youth. I think that’s one reason why I have always been an advocate of and for radio.
I’ve always been proud of the fact that I can sleep at will—anywhere, anytime. My friends who have problems with insomnia say it is a gift.
Sleep, or power nap, as corporate people prefer to call it—in the car between meetings, in receiving halls before meetings, in boardrooms during meetings—made me survive the rigors of the workplace.
In the last three days, however, I have had no power nap. I was out of town for Compassion International’s Selection Camp.
That meant we had to do interviews all day. Those interviews were so heart wrenching (choosing only 40 among 70 needy students to be supported through college), I stayed awake, holding back tears over and over again.
Those kids (15 to 17), who walk to school, barefoot sometimes because they have no money for shoes or transportation, and who still have to taste fried chicken, gave poverty a face. They all have one desire: to go to college, hoping to make something of themselves with nothing but determination to forge ahead.
We started the interviews at nine AM and knocked off at six PM. After an early supper, because there was no internet connection, one had nothing else to do but sleep—for 10 hours straight, two nights in a row. Those were gifts, too.
For how could one sleep after listening to a series of heartbreaking stories—stories that make you angry and helpless and guilty at the same time? I read the morning papers and saw the other side of the track—gloating politicians, wallowing in wealth and promising to help the poor.
On my long ride home, I didn’t doze off as I often do. I talked to the God of grace. And I gawked at buildings. Architecture in this country is extremely varied and each block is different. Two buildings made me smile. One was McDonald’s. It looked like a pack of French Fries!
And the other was OMF Lit's. It has a billboard of my latest book.
At the Compassion Selection Camp, I learned that you don’t find joy. It finds you. It also found me in traffic watching these buildings—which were a balm to a heavy heart.