Our very own Christmas

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A Filipino-Canadian reflects on her family’s annual Christmas breakfast tradition of homemade peameal bacon sandwiches, delectable sans rival and convivial conversations.

Text and photos by MARIYAH GONZALES

We have spent every Christmas morning in our living room but December 25th of 1995. It was then in Las Piñas, a growing suburb about half an hour southwest of Metro Manila, that we lit the fireworks we bought from the corner store at the end of my Lola’s (grandmother’s) street. When my cousins first taught me to use my hands to eat. Though every other year, there were no other stories but ours around the tree. Our holidays away from the Philippines were spent with the family we built here in Toronto. With others who were also looking to make homes so far from their own. We have never known anything else and cannot genuinely long for a place we faintly remember. I see it though, in my parents’ faces and hear it when their voices crack on the phone, how far apart everybody really is. It has always been just us.

While dad makes the coffee, one of us paws out the gifts from underneath the tree and into five separate piles. Sitting behind our own, we watch each other unwrap, always from the youngest up. We read cards first and out loud then set them aside in a pile to keep. My mom collects all of the salvageable gift bags and tissue paper early on and in between her animated reactions. She leaves the tattered wrapping paper on the ground for our dog. Cohen, to wade through. We have a fire going and the radio is on. The songs are on loop and it all starts to sound the same. The phone will ring every once in a while and my parents will laugh out good tidings and peaceful wishes for the coming year. Once, someone called the wrong number but mom stayed to chat and still wished the caller the same.

After gifts, we have brunch. Much like the rest of the year, dad often gets carried away in the kitchen. We like to tease and say he is also cooking for his nine other siblings and mom in the Philippines because of the off proportions and volume of food he makes.

On special days, we can expect to have peameal bacon breakfast sandwiches. Inspiration struck dad after his first visit to the St. Lawrence Market and he has made these sandwiches for almost all of our special mornings. Some years we have had a nice hollandaise sauce poured on top but we still used our hands; sliding any pieces of biscuit across our plates leaving streaks. His recipe calls for a few pieces of peameal bacon, aged cheddar and a fried egg, over easy, stacked between a sliced buttered biscuit. Dad will whip up both an avocado and papaya smoothie to soften all of the sharpness of the sandwiches. Also to wash down the hash browns and sausages he will have waiting on the side. The food disappears quickly but we stay at the table for a few hours, learning and re-learning.

My brother and sister almost always ask for English phrases to translate with the limited Taglish [Tagalog-English] they know. Almost like they need to hear themselves connecting with my parents, to communicate that they understand we are far away but that it is never too far that we cannot all remember. It is as if they feel a deep responsibility to respect Tagalog, to gently rock the unfamiliar syllables in their mouths.

This time of re-learning will be over Sans Rival, a special treat we save exclusively for the holidays. Silky buttercream and airy meringue are layered between crumbly sheets of crushed cashews. They look like the hockey pucks angels would use if angels played hockey.

Mom has a friend who makes the desserts in her oven at home. She packs boxes of the stuff, almost twenty in each, God bless her soul. We keep them in the freezer and must exercise nearly impossible degrees of discipline while it thaws. The first bite in the second piece is always the best. It is when you remember to appreciate something not because it is great but because it is always good.

I will often play Viva Artists Pop Star, Donna Cruz’s Araw Araw Pasko throughout the season. Much like seeing the first snowfall, I’m almost dizzy with excitement the first time I hear it. It’s the only song that digs up and tugs at my homesickness. Araw Araw Pasko, Christmas Everyday, traces the bustle in December from the packed churches, to the caroling and the coloured lights. My favourite line sings, “bati na ang magkaway ngayon, bati na sila.” People have forgotten or forgiven what they needed to, making room for the peace this season promises. I first heard it play on a cassette my parents had brought from Manila. It is a compilation of Christmas originals the label put together in 1991. Another favourite in the mix is Rapper Andrew E’s Kagat ng Aso. Imagine, a Christmas song about getting bit by dog!

This season has always been a time when we have emphasized joy, blessing and togetherness. We try and enter the holidays without acting in service of ourselves, remembering that this time is for others. This spirit and attitude that blows in with Christmas is neither Canadian nor Filipino. We’ve found a peaceful balance. It is one that looks like us, one that feels just right and feels like home.

You can connect with Mariyah Gonzales via:

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