Sunday, December 26, 2010

Once Upon a Christmas

The Christmases of my childhood never meant gifts and a decorated tree in the living room. Christmas was a day at the village church and a ‘feast’ after Mass.

Pic from Google Images

Papa always left for church ahead of us. Then Mama would shoo us kids while she took her time getting ready. I remember hoping that she wouldn’t be late as usual. But she frequently managed to make a grand entrance when the service had started and she’d whisper instructions to us as soon as she arrived. There was always something about us that bothered her.

The Mass started late morning, almost noon because the priest came only after saying Mass at his parish church, some 20 miles away. As soon as Father Dapoz had parked his bike and donned on his cassock, he had to listen to confessions. On many a Christmas day, an endless line of people waited patiently for their turn to unburden their sins on the poor priest before Mass could begin.

Papa led the singing during Mass. Sometimes he got confused and would change the melody when he came to the chorus of  'O Come All Ye Faithful'. The hymns and carols were not familiar to the village congregation so they didn’t know Papa was singing one of them wrong. I just pretended I was as ignorant. (The villagers had been animists until Papa told them about God and the Bible.)

As it was so late, my sister and I would be half dead with hunger by the time the service was over because in those long ago days, you never ate or drank anything before church so you could go for communion. Our last meal would have been the previous night’s dinner. Sometimes I’d be shivering with hunger by the time I could get some food. 'Hypoglycemia' wasn’t in my vocabulary until years later.

After Mass we all had food in the church itself, seated on the rough wooden benches with our rice wrapped in leaves and eating it with a meat dish someone had cooked for the occasion. I felt it wasn’t right to be eating in ‘God’s house’ because that was what I had learnt in school: no eating or talking in church. And here we were—a church-ful of people—talking, laughing, eating and drinking rice beer.

There was always a treat for the kids. Somehow my elder brother was usually given the ‘honour’ of throwing dozens of sweets into the air and as they rained down, the kids—and some adults, too—rushed to pick them from the grass among the fallen leaves and twigs and bits of dried up buffalo dung.

The next day we’d have another round of merrymaking at home. Papa would slaughter one of his pigs and he’d invite the ‘whole’ kampong for lunch. Many of our guests stayed until late at night and a few would still be there in the morning, sound asleep. They had been persuaded to stay the night instead of staggering  home in the dark with their bellies full of rice beer.

We had no new clothes for Christmas. No Santa came bearing gifts. Did I ever feel something was missing? Not when I was a kid when at Christmas time our house was filled with laughter and bursting with happiness.


  1. Your childhood christmases were indeed more meaningful, though I don't envy you for the hypoglycemia :). It must have been terrible. During my time, mom was still strict about not eating anything an hour before church (although I learnt in catechism class that it was supposed to be an hour before communion) but I guess the mass didn't last as long anymore. All in all, I miss the christmas carols the most.

  2. Thanks for popping in, Verone. Christmas, for me, always means family and food! Hope you had a wonderful Christmas... and a great year ahead!

  3. Back in the 60s Christmas mass was celebrated normally near mid-night. We walked home after the mass with large group of people singing the carol songs all the way till we reached home under the bright moon light night. It was really fun.

    I know Father Dapoz personally. He has a powerful memory remembering people long and difficult names. He speaks very good Dusun language too. Where was his parish church at that in your story?

  4. Hi Andrew! Father Dapoz must have been in Tuaran. He rode his motorbike all the zigzag way to my kampong. I'm not sure if he had ever taken our good friend, Gunsayau, to act as 'altar boy'.