One Sweet Holiday

The familiar scent of freshly baked, coconut-topped bibinka wafts toward me as I wend my way to the overly laden dessert table. My lusty sweet tooth kicks into overdrive, and suddenly, all I can think of is my love affair with the Filipino delights often found on special occasions. I greedily eye the selections and select my first victim. Will it be the milky pastillas wrapped in pink, yellow, and blue cellophane? The sugar-coated suman rolled in banana leaves? The creamy tibok-tibok, topped with coconut morsels? The sticky sapin-sapin, with enough colors to rival a rainbow? Looking at the rich array of treats, my queasy stomach overcomes its motion sickness from the traffic-riddled, 3-hour car ride from Metro Manila to the province of Pampanga. As if the sight of dessert controls my speech as well, my tongue overcomes its fumbling attempt at adjusting to the trilingual chatter in my grandparents’ house.

Uncontrollably salivating as I approach the plethora of Christmas delicacies, I’m accosted by my aunts, incessantly inquiring about my love life. Or lack thereof.

“You know, one of my comares has a handsome son—” Tita Liza begins.
“And there’s a nice boy that works at my office,” Tita Helen interrupts.
“No, you should meet my neighbor first,” Tita Grace interjects, “he’s a lawyer!”

I simply smile and listen to my contriving aunts, matchmaker extraordinaires, while I silently formulate an excuse to extract myself from this uproarious conversation. Thankfully, my lola, my grandmother, finds me and steers me away. Unfortunately, she is also steering me away from my beloved desserts, and toward some newly arrived guests, most of whose names I cannot recall. As part of the family, I’m obliged to play host to the constant stream of arrivals. Now, I’m not opposed to socializing, but with my mother’s thirteen siblings all present, I would think there’d be enough entertainment without me.

The air begins to cool as evening approaches, but the heat in the crowded house is still wearing on me. This, in conjunction with the gleeful shrieks of my little cousins (numerous enough to form teams of a soccer league) as they run past, is enough to make me want to whine like a kid about not getting my hourly dose of sweets. At this point, I imagine I’m as jittery as someone suffering from nicotine deprivation.

Mercifully, the melody of “Ang Pasko ay Sumapit,” or “Christmas has arrived,” permeates the air, and the holiday revelers stride to the windows to watch the young carolers weaving their harmonies in the middle of the street. Setting down the brilliant turquoise parol, or star-shaped Christmas lantern, brought by a newly arrived guest, I seize the opportunity to satiate my sugar-itch. Again, I make my way to the dessert table —this time without obstruction— and concoct a halo-halo with a sweet combination of jackfruit strips and coconut strings, syrupy slices of plantains, nata de coco, and purple chunks of ube. I pack in the requisite shaved ice, deluge it with cream, and top it off with some ice cream, crunchy pinipig, and smooth leche flan. The frosty ambrosia feels good in the muggy atmosphere, and the fusion of tastes on my palate brings a cascade of childhood memories: growing up with my grandparents, road trips with the whole clan, and this vast stone house. I return to the present, dessert finally in hand, and find everyone exchanging gifts around a scintillating Christmas tree. Contentedly, I think that Dorothy had it right: There truly is no place like home, especially for the holidays.