I did not know that it was cold when I landed in Calgary at winter time 35 years ago. I was cooped up in the warm airplane for so many hours of travel from Manila. I later learned there was no snow yet, as winter was late coming that year. I was preoccupied with sadness and resentment – I did not want to leave my home country. But I guess, when it’s written in your fate, that’s the way it goes.
Calgary airport was decked with Christmas decorations. The air wafted with gentle Christmas songs. I smiled at the Calgarians – they were wearing cowboy hats and boots. Familiar sight since there was an annual rodeo at UP Los Banos. I was a Ranchera – member of the Ranchers Club - and we wore cowboy hats and shirts, and wrapped our necks with colorful neckerchief at our rodeos. I was happy to see my sister and brother-in-law. Their son was a colicky baby when they left the Philippines five years earlier. Now he was a skinny, lanky boy who kept smiling at me.
There was no Christmas tree, nor other Christmas decorations in my sister’s house. Day after tomorrow, it would be Christmas, I thought. Strange. Back home, we set up the Christmas tree as soon as November hits. There was no festive holiday food in my sister’s house; we had Christmas dinner at their friends’ house. I gave them Christmas presents I brought from Manila, and earlier, they bought me a winter coat, boots, gloves, scarf and a hat they called “toque.” I thought I looked funny in those clothes; they were also cumbersome. But I was missing a Christmas tree. Somehow, it was etched in my “cocote “ that Christmas included a brightly-adorned pine tree, draped in twinkling lights and sparkling tinsels . This was Canada, and we had no Christmas tree? My sister said they were too excited with my arrival that it slipped their mind to decorate their house for Christmas.
It took me a while to land a job. I would have scooted home had I the money for a plane ticket. About work, I confess I was a bit (secretly) condescending to my editors – it struck me that I was better in spelling and syntax compared to them, and they seemed confused with the imperial and metric systems . I could not seem to latch on to new friends – I enrolled in swimming, frequented the library and museum, and went to the flea market with my nephew on week-ends.
Time flew fast; it was winter again. I told my sister I wanted to buy us a Christmas tree. She said no, because they don’t celebrate Christmas. It turned out she converted to her husband’s religion. They don’t celebrate Christmas since nobody was really sure that Jesus Christ was born on December 25. Yeah? But nobody said he was born exactly on that date – it was just a covenant among Christians who agreed on a one-day to celebrate Jesus’ birth. And that was December 25 as a universal celebration. But you don’t argue about religion.
December inched to Christmas. This time, snow was falling. My workplace started to decorate. I volunteered to fuss with the Christmas tree. Donna, formerly a Stampede princess, helped me. We chatted some, and she asked if we already have a Christmas tree at my sister’s house. I told her my sister and her family don’t celebrate Christmas. She asked if I could have a Christmas tree in my room; I haven’t thought of that. The next day, I found a gift-wrapped box on my desk. Donna urged me to open it --- it was a plastic Christmas tree, just about one-and-a-half foot high , green, entangled with cute little Christmas lights that winked and twinkled when plugged it on the wall, and with small shiny red glass balls hanging here and there. I took it home.
I plugged on my small Christmas tree, and it winked and twinkled. I stared at it. My little nephew smiled at me. “Merry Christmas, Tita,” he said. I felt a lump in my throat. I just nodded and blinked back a tear.
I kept that small plastic Christmas tree for many years. I don’t have it now, but I still remember it. I think it grew in my heart.
Rose Tijam lives in Toronto. She is a founding member of the Philippine Press Club of Ontario, and a former president of the University of the Philippines Alumni Association Toronto. She graduated from the University of the Philippines. She has a master’s degree in communication.
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