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Christmastime is on the table

By FELICE PRUDENTE STA. MARIA, The Philippine STAR Published Dec 22, 2022 5:00 am

When the first strains of Jose Mari Chan’s Christmas in Our Hearts are heard, one is reminded to begin planning Noche Buena, the meal served on Dec. 24, traditionally before attending the late-night Nativity Mass called misa de gallo, mass of the rooster that anecdotally crowed when Jesus Christ was born at midnight. 

Noche Buena became custom for the “good evening,” because since 1537 natives of the West and East Indies were granted an indult by Pope Paul III exempting them from the rule to fast on the vigil of Christmas, to eat only after mass. Noche Buena is celebrated in Mexico, Peru, Cuba, and Haiti, for instance.

A meager glimpse of a 17th-century Noche Buena was described by Francisco Ignacio Alcina S.J. (1610-1674), a Spanish missionary from Gandia in rice-eating Valencia province. He served as a parish priest in Paranas, Catbalogan and Palapag of Samar; Carigara in Leyte; and Cebu from 1637 to 1668.

A modern Filipino Christmas spread: Holiday eats, from the simplest to the most lavish, are expressions of Christmas in every Filipino family’s heart.

The eve of Christmas was when his team of Jesuits made sure a “good and abundant collation” was prepared for the town’s leading men and women. Sweets had to be present, he wrote, one supposing it emphasized that Christmas was a time of joy for the Holy Family and should be for every Filipino family, too.

During fiestas, he documented, native women served tapul, rice that was naturally black, “perhaps because it [was] out of the ordinary,” he said. Sticky rice has a tradition of being food for pagan gods, so it is not unusual that dark purple tapul would be carried over into a Christian feast. One hopes biko made with tapul will ascend among favorite Christmas foods.

Puto bumbong and bibingka may have ancestral links to Portuguese Kerala and Goa.

Priests domesticated pigs and cattle for fiestas and to feed parishioners who repaired churches. It seems safe to conclude that anonymous missionaries taught their cooks, some as young as seven years old, how to prepare Spanish viands, especially for beef that was not part of pre-colonial native cuisine.

Following islander custom, wine was served to men but in moderation. Church chanters were also apportioned wine but very temperately because they had to pray matins around 2 o’clock in the morning. Carols in mother tongues were already being sung.

The sweet rice pudding of Alcina’s time was joined later by puto and bibingka that may have ancestral links to Portuguese Kerala and Goa. Puto bumbong made for individual portions in bamboo tubes and using pirurutong rice is kin to biko cooked in family portions.

Noche Buena dishes: Spaghetti with Pinoy-style sauce is just one of the holiday’s dulcet temptations.

Sweetness can bring happiness by triggering the brain’s release of dopamine, unknown in the 1600s. Leche flan, pastillas de leche, ensaimada, food for the gods, fruit salad with condensed milk, sugar-glazed ham, and even the latest addition to top Noche Buena dishes — spaghetti with Pinoy-style sauce—are just a few of the holiday’s dulcet temptations. 

Nayánayá, a Visayan term, means the happiness one acquires by caring for, entertaining, and feeding others. Holiday eats, from the simplest to the most lavish, are expressions of Christmas in every Filipino family’s heart.