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Daredevil Christmases and the aborted rescue of Jose Rizal: Would Christmas 2023 be different had it succeeded?

By LISA GUERRERO NAKPIL, The Philippine STAR Published Dec 22, 2023 9:35 am

It’s easy to forget, amid the sugary Jose Mari Chan Christmas ballads and the dazzling supermall lights, that Filipino Decembers weren’t always this merry.

In fact, except perhaps for the British Consul’s house in Manila, there would be no ceiling-high fir trees much less the faux snowflakes and Santa Clauses that swept in with the brand-new American regime after 1898.

Jose Rizal would have been rescued by a daring plot on Dec. 30, 1896.

Manuel L. Quezon, as leading Commonwealth tastemaker and that generation’s undisputed influencer, would lead the well-heeled throngs eating turkey and cranberry sauce on the Escolta, but in Old Spanish Manila, its denizens would dine on Yuletide suppers of Madrileño dishes (cocido, callos, lengua) and recipes learned in Paris.

But Filipino Christmases once belonged to the daredevils, swashbuckling characters out of Philippine history who made their mark on the 12th month of the year. It would also be the perfect time to fire shots and wage war, compared to the evil wet month of August when the Cry of Pugad Lawin would take place.

Emilio Aguinaldo would hatch a plot to rescue Jose Rizal.

The list begins with the glamorous general Gregorio “Goyo” del Pilar, a favorite of Emilio Aguinaldo, who then consecrated his life to Agui’s defense on the isolated mountains of Tirad Pass on Dec. 2, 1899. Del Pilar was dashing, exceedingly well dressed, and a ladies’ man. He sought to replay the Battle of Thermopylae, popularized in the action film 300, where 300 Spartans took on the Persian Empire. Goyo would fight to the death but meet the inevitable, outmanned and outgunned by American troops. (They would later purloin his love letters, silver-handled saber, and boots as trophies.)

The previous December, it was Juan Luna (with Pedro Roxas and Felipe Agoncillo) who was waging his own war, desperately lobbying to subvert the negotiations between the Spanish and the Americans that would conclude in the mind-boggling Treaty of Paris that would sell the Philippines off for just $20 million.

Gen. Gregorio del Pilar would seek to replay Sparta’s “300” at the Battle of Tirad Pass.

Flashback to when Juan Luna was picked up in the reign of terror unleashed after the discovery of the Katipunan in 1896. He had been thrown into Fort Santiago along with his younger brother Antonio who would later morph into a fearsome fighting general during the Philippine-American War.

But in December 1896, even the renown of the most popular Filipino artist Juan Luna was to be overshadowed by the arrival in their prison of the most famous captive of all, Jose Rizal.

Juan Luna (rightmost) would morph into a diplomat in Paris, December 1896, and would fight the Treaty of Paris. (Beside him, from left, A. Vergel de Dios, R. Abarca and Felipe Agoncillo.)

In Michael “Xiao” Chua’s illuminating timeline of Rizal’s days, he notes that, on Dec. 11, the following occurred. In his prison cell, Rizal was read the charges against him: “Principal organizer and the living soul of the Filipino insurrection, the founder of societies, periodicals, and books dedicated to fomenting and propagating the ideas of rebellion.” Those chilling words spelled his doom.

The news of Rizal’s arrest and incarceration would, however, spread throughout the ranks of the Katipunan and a death-or-glory plot was astonishingly hatched to free him.

The prospect would rival the thrilling action of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny any day of the week. The timing would have been perfect for the Midnight Mass of Dec. 24, when all of Manila’s Catholic hierarchy and the Guardia Civil would have their heads bowed down at the cathedral or any of the two dozen churches that studded the Wall City, but the Katipunan had other plans. It would probably have been too difficult to enter Manila by boat through the Pasig River, scale the ramparts of Intramuros built of Guadalupe adobe, and make a stealthy break into Rizal’s cell.

Scholar Jim Richardson went on to note that Emilio Aguinaldo would take credit for the final scheme in his memoirs Mga Gunita and that Bonifacio had heartily supported it. But the Katipunan membership in Tondo and Quiapo had been decimated in the Battle of San Juan, the survivors limping away to secret shelter north of Manila. One imagines it would be left to Aguinaldo and the Cavite “Magdalo” to carry out the feat of derring-do.

General Santiago Alvarez’ memoirs, The Katipunan and the Revolution, reveal the plan to “snatch Dr. Jose Rizal from the firing squad the following day, December 30, 1896, the scheduled date of the execution… troops armed with bladed weapons (would) infiltrate Manila that very night and later mingle with the crowd who would come to witness the execution.”

The plans were dashed when, as Richardson notes, Paciano Rizal “argued emphatically against it.” General Alvarez noted that “Mr. Paciano Rizal said that his brother Dr. Rizal would be agreeable to the plan if only one other life would be at stake.”

The question must now be asked: Would our Christmas in 2023 be any different had the plan gone into motion and, what’s more, succeeded? Would Jose Rizal—and not Emilio Aguinaldo nor Andres Bonifacio—have been our first president and would we now be living his utopian vision of a highly educated and patriotic Philippines? That would have been the ultimate Christmas wish.