Friday, December 24, 2004

Antonio Luna's Christmas memories

Antonio Luna's Christmas memories

Updated 02:07am (Mla time) Dec 24, 2004
By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A13 of the December 24, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

CONTRARY to popular belief, it is Antonio Luna's greatest misfortune to be acknowledged as one of the national heroes of the Philippines. Like Jose Rizal, he has been reduced to a statue of bronze or stone, a bit of textbook data that forever locks him in the closet of our imagination as the greatest general of the Filipino-American War. And yet, according to Teodoro Agoncillo, he never won a single battle in his career. Because textbooks have a tendency to oversimplify, heroes like Antonio Luna have to be seen in another light in order that the complexity of their lives and times can be appreciated.

Browsing through the compilation of La Solidaridad, I spotted an article on Christmas Eve in the Jan. 25, 1890 issue. It is datelined Paris, Jan. 12, 1890 and is bylined with the familiar pseudonym Taga-Ilog. The Lunas trace their roots to Ilocos Norte; the painter Juan Luna was born in Badoc, but his younger brother Antonio was born and raised in Binondo, near the Pasig River hence the pseudonym Taga-Ilog, from which we derived the term "Tagalog." Luna spent Christmas Eve 1889 in Madrid where the winter cold was made worse by his homesickness and his thoughts of Christmas in the Philippines. Luna met an old beggar on the street and instinctively put his hand into his pocket to find a coin but it was so cold the donation took some effort and he said, "And they would call this Christmas Eve when cold paralyzed even the hand which likes to give alms."

We are indebted to the late Guadalupe Fores-Ganzon who translated the first two years of La Solidaridad from the original Spanish to English; and to Bookmark that took over the project and published the entire series in parallel text. Luna's prose may be too florid for our taste today but, just to give you an idea, here is how he opened the essay:

"Delightful spring night in the capital of the Philippines-there where grey skies are covered with extensive clouds which, following the laws of condensation, descend in a cascade of slender bales of cotton threads, or in precipitate bundles of minute pieces of paper which float in space as if thrown from a balcony by the nervous hand of an irate woman."

No mention of snow, Santa Claus, and reindeer. The scientist in Luna (he was a chemist trained in the Institut Pasteur in Paris) refers to the laws of condensation! If you read on you are rewarded to a glimpse of Christmas Eve in the late 19th-century Philippines. In the cold of Europe, he pursued his memories:

"...(W)hich gladdens the soul, we took flight in imagination to a place thousands of miles away-there where the cheerful season sings of the Birth of Christ, under the thick arbor of trees which intertwine and embrace each other, and among the plants and flowers which by their perfumes intoxicate, we found ourselves seated beside a shy dalaga (maiden), and we inhaled the sweetness of a garland of sampaguitas that in graceful folds tries in vain to hide the virginal purity of her white breast."

While most Filipinos today remember Christmas Eve through their taste buds or their childhood noche buenas, Luna remembers Christmas through different senses. He is tired of cold and snow and longs for the tropics. Covered with a muffler and scarf, he remembers the scent of sampaguita. A musician, reputedly one of the best guitarists of his time, Luna remembers sounds:

"Again I seem to hear the sounds of a tuned orchestra of Sampaloc, of San Juan del Monte, of Pandacan wafted in undulating chords by the breezes which throb in space. It is the customary thing for the family to group together in celebration of Christmas Eve. The family members go to church to hear midnight mass; from the church to the house and then to the dance; from the dance to dinner; until exhausted by the excitement of the recreation, they sleep in the first hours of the morning.

"Artistic paper lantern imitating the Spanish escutcheon, the Star of Bethlehem, etc., with different inscriptions such as 'VIVA EL NI¥O JESUS' and 'Esta noche es Noche Buena' [This night is Christmas Eve], starts the parade, carried by a barefoot lad dressed in shirt and white pants, a funny handkerchief around the brow like the Aragonese custom. Eight or ten more boys, jumping happily around him threaten by their jumps and thrusts the vertical position of the lanterns which oscillates at every step. Other boys of the streets gather around and follow with their shouts of Aba! Ta aqui ya el orquesta, ta aqui ya, ta aqui ya [Oh! Here comes the band. It is coming…it is coming]. Happy are the hearts that in experiencing the sweet impressions of music are gladdened or saddened by them. Music is the sister of sentiment; those children of the street and of ignorance feel. People who feel are not slaves.

"Behind the children come the ‘dalagas’ and the ‘bagontaos,’ the ‘tatays’ and ‘nanays,’ the fastidious aunts and at the tail end of the paraders, the orchestra playing the polkas of Fahrback, Fliege, Coote, the waltzes of Strauss, Waldteudel, Metra, the sanzas of Silos, Perez, Enriquez, Kostka and Castañeda."

The Christmas Eve in Antonio Luna's memory is so different from our own. Even the composers he mentions are unknown to me. He describes the “noche Buena” party but makes no mention of food or drink. Memory can be very selective which makes history a very complicated profession.


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