by Patricio P. Diaz,  MindaNews,  Dec. 12, 2002

Patricio P. Diaz is an award-winning
opinion columnist at MindaNews,
originally from Tacdangan, Cabatuan.
Ghost of Christmas Past
Patricio P. Diaz / MindaNews / 12 December 2002

GENERAL SANTOS CITY -- My ghost of Christmas Past has no relation with the "ghost" of the same appellation which haunted Scrooge in Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol.

Dickens' ghost was that of a dead miser visiting his living fellow miser, Scrooge, to convert him to a Christmas patron on Christmas Day. Mine is a memory, simple and happy, of Christmas among simple people living simple life in simple past. The memory is a ghost but not the scary ghost dragging clanking chains. It's a ghost singing and making happy those who remember.

Past Was the Present

Memory was the life when past was the present. The present can appreciate memory if it can see the past in its simplicity. Only by this can the memory of Christmas Past be the ghost that will make the Present realize - beyond the glare of present sophistication - a deeper meaning of Christmas.

When I speak of Christmas Past, I'm speaking of Christmas in the rural community in my native barrio in Cabatuan, Iloilo in the 1930s. Up to this day, the barrio has remained rural. Whatever changes it has had in the last 70 years was a turtle's pace compared to the transformation of General Santos from a wilderness into a city.

I'm quite certain, the rural community I knew was typical of rural communities in the Philippines at that time. Farmers living in their farms had neighbors at shouting distances. Of course, a whisper in the rural neighborhood is a shout in the city.

Besides the small farm houses dotting the hills, families numbering from 50 to 100 were huddled in barrios a kilometer or two apart. People in the farms and barrios knew each other by their first names. Many of them were blood relatives.

Simple Life

How simple was life in the rural communities I knew? People lived in houses made of wood, bamboo and cogon. GI roofing was very rare. In the barrio, the typical house had a porch, sala, one or two bedrooms, a dining room and kitchen.

There was no running water. Bath was at the common well or brook. Toilet was at a distance and not the sanitary type commonly known today. In the farms, the houses were small.

Typically, one private room for the family belongings and another room for receiving visitors, dining, and sleeping at night. An annex served as kitchen-cooking-washing space. If the floor was elevated, below it were the chickens, the pigs or the carabao.

Generally, the people's diet consisted of plain rice and vegetables grown around or in the nearby rice fields and forests. Chicken, fish, pork or beef was for special meal.

Rural people knew money by the centavos - mostly one, five, 10, 20 centavos. Anyone with 50-centavo or one-peso coin, or a one-peso or two-peso bill was well-off. A five-peso bill was a rarity. Wedding dowries rarely went beyond 50 pesos.

Farm people had two - rarely three - pieces of working clothes they hanged to dry at the end of the day, washing them twice or once a week. They had about the same number of pieces for special occasions. There were no rubber slippers then. As they were born barefoot, most lived and died barefoot. When compelled to wear shoes, some carried their shoes to and from the special occasion.


Simple as their life was, people in rural communities celebrated Christmas just like how they awaited the Holy Week and their barrio and town fiestas.

Their celebration lacked the lavishness of the rich in the city and the poblacion, but they enjoyed their way.

Caroling was the common way of spreading the message and spirit of Christmas. Groups went around singing Christmas carols in the dialect to the accompaniment of guitar or bandurria. Big and better organized groups were with complete ensemble of stringed instruments. Big groups of carolers went the rounds of the barrios and the poblacion. Caroling started simultaneously with the beginning of Misa de Aguinaldo.

Usually, this stopped after Christmas Day although some caroled until the Three Kings.

The small groups - four, five, or bigger but not more than 10 - were the real messengers of Christmas. They made the rounds of the farm houses wrapping themselves in shawls or wearing thick clothes since December in the 1930s was cold.

The groups came in early evening, around midnight or past midnight. Dogs or their guitar announced their coming. The group leader would usually call out, "Tagbalay. Magdaigon kami." (Master of the house. We're going to carol.)

Even if the "Tagbalay" would answer, "Pasensya lang kamo. Wala kami sing kuarta" (Please, excuse us. We have no money), still they would sing. Not short Christmas songs but a ballad-like chronicle of the birth of Jesus in the vernacular.

In a few cases, the "Tagbalay" really had no money. All the carolers got was "Madamong salamat" (Thank you very much). In the farms, the carolers usually received for their cheers five centavos or less. Ten centavos was good luck.

Many groups of carolers from the barrio or the neighboring barrios caroled in the farms and in the barrio during the Christmas season. How much each caroler got was not much. But the "Salamat" and "Malipayon nga Paskua" (Merry Christmas) they exchanged with simple people like them enriched the spirit.

Just Memory

To me, this has remained only as fond memory. Even if I go back to my native barrio, I will not witness the same simple ways of spreading Christmas joy among the people. All the actors - those carolers -- are gone. And so much had transpired to kill a beautiful tradition.

In the 1940s, the Japanese four-year occupation made it impossible for the carolers to carol as they used to. After the Japanese were gone, the Huks and other rebellious elements took over the countrysides. Gone was the time when it was safe to roam the farms throughout the night.

Then came crass materialism. Almost everything was valued in terms of money. Christmas spirit became the subject of commerce.

Everywhere it was for sale. Without money, Christmas joy was not complete. People from the countrysides trooped to malls in the city to buy Christmas joy.

I remember. In the 1940s, carolers still went around Lagao (General Santos City) and, I presume, in other places, too. In the 1950s and the 1960s, in Cotabato City, groups of carolers were not as welcomed as they were before. Groups from schools and civic organizations caroled by written appointment.

Towards 2000, it was rare to hear carolers singing. Except, of course, the children in the neighborhood singing nondescript or unintelligible verses in common Christmas tunes to the accompaniment of rhythmic beat of tin cans or stones. And they kept coming back to the generous spirit many times a night starting before December 1.

Times change. Values change. Christmas practices change, although the essence of Christmas will remain in the Filipino and the Catholic Church traditions.

As I witness the changing time, the changing values and the changing practices, I commune with the Ghost of Christmas Past to be able to continue cherishing the essence of Christmas.

("Comment" is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz' regular column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Titus Brandsma Media Awards recently honored Mr. Diaz with a "Lifetime Achievement Award" for his "commitment to education and public information to Mindanaons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.")

This article was originally posted in MindaNews in 2002...
Republished October 25, 2008 on with permission from the author.