IN MY hometown south of Manila, the Christmas spirit kicks in when the whole city becomes flooded with lights. By mid-November, I would be halted from my walk home by lamp posts decorated with lights—plastic lanterns of different colors with light bulbs inside. Interesting is the way they are shaped into two different Christmas symbols each year. This year, they are Santa Clauses lugging sacks full of colorful packages on their backs, attached to the posts alternately with little girls wearing scarves and bonnets, playing flutes.

My favorite lanterns were the ones made two Christmases ago. One was a bright shooting star and the other was a faceless angel carrying a wand.

I saw them first on my way home from school one night, a few weeks before Christmas vacation. The evening air was damp and inside the FX, the air-conditioner was on full. Everyone could feel the quiet December creeping up fast.

As the FX went up a short flyover, a preview of heaven welcomed me as the shooting stars came flying past, and the angels swooped down as the vehicle sped through the half-empty road. They were so striking and I reached out to touch one star, but my fantasy was cut when my hand was stopped by the window. Quietly laughing, I studied the glass, its thin film of mist broken by my fingerprints.

I got off and began the short walk home. There were still some people on the streets that night, some on their way home and some standing before their houses, laughing and talking.

I pulled up my backpack higher on my shoulder and looked around. I soon came upon the main attraction of our street: the big house. I have yet to see another family who poured their hearts and souls out for Christmas decorations as they did. A couple of weeks after All Saints’ and All Souls’ days, colored lights would flood their balcony railings, walls and gates. Reindeer and miniature Christmas trees lined one side of their front yard, also blinking with lights. Expensive lanterns with kaleidoscopic patterns and complicated light sequences hung by rows above the doors. There was so much color and intensity that the family had agreed to the homeowners’ association’s polite suggestion to exempt them from the yearly home decorating contest, because nobody had the chance to beat them if they competed.

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The family who lived there had been around for some time, but I never got to know them. Perhaps few of us living around them did. We were content watching them live. I loved the mornings when I passed the house on the way to school. Their cages full of parakeets and myna birds would be singing their daily repertoire of songs. On some days, I would hear one of the young daughters belting out a song on a videoke CD as early as 8 a.m. During holidays, I would see them spending quiet evenings at the front yard, walking around the small garden and basking in their glitter of lights.

A few steps past the big house, I come to my “halfway” mark; a small sari-sari store which was open until midnight. The trademark of this store was its group of men and their marathon drinking sessions. These men were the neighborhood tricycle drivers and construction workers from the building across the street that remained unfinished. They would be hunched over the plastic tables and wooden benches, nursing their bottles and sore bodies, sharing a story or two while reaching for the platter of pulutan. The scene was always the same¯dark, bulky figures of the tricycle drivers in yellow and blue shirts; the construction workers in white and green shirts; shouts, clinking bottles, and boisterous laughter exploding from the bunch, although their smiles were never clearly visible in the poor light; men sitting on the benches, men getting up and waddling off on wobbly knees, men relieving themselves behind a half-grown coconut palm. The picture was livelier during Christmas, but with the same dull, yellow glow.

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A few more steps later I could see the end of the street. The road widened because of a curve to the right which lead to a university, which explained the number of sari-sari stores, canteens, and computer shops sprouting in our area every semester.

Students were still milling out of the university gate as I approached my house. I passed a makeshift wooden pushcart parked outside my house. Little boys, of ages eight or nine, would approach every house and offer to collect their garbage for five pesos. They were unusually industrious during Christmas. As they stood outside doors waiting for garbage, they would croon a rough version of Jingle Bells, or Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit, rattling in their thin hands steel rings strung with crushed bottle caps for accompaniment. They received the garbage, and perhaps a ten-peso bill, then hid their murmurs of salamat po into the ragged necks of their grimy shirts.

I slipped past our gate and walked up to our front door. No lights were on inside the house. No one was home. I paused, feeling for my keys inside my backpack, I noticed the angel on the lamppost by our gate, and the shooting star across the street. Apparently, they followed me home. I smiled.

After seeing the lights, my eyes took some time adjusting to the darkness. Not realizing that my hand had found the key, I stood a few more minutes in the dark and studied the angel as it gently rocked back and forth with the breeze.

SuddenIy, the lines “Ang Disyembre ko ay malungkot, pagkat miss kita” blasting out of my neighbor’s house jolted me out of my reverie. Shaking my head, I turn to feel for the lock on the door. This is our Christmas, I thought before groping for the light switch. And this is why it’s beautiful. Lights or no lights.

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The angel and the star remained silent, nodding softly from their earthly perches.

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