THE RUMBLE of plastic wheels rolling across a hardwood floor was heard across the hallway and into the kitchen, followed by successive thuds—the sound of running footsteps. A toy train halted in front of the stove. Lured by the smell of steamed peanuts, Manny reached out for the lid, before a hand grabbed his forearm.

“Manny, what did I tell you about touching the stove while I’m cooking?” said his mother. Manny stepped back and tightly held the string attached to his train.

Manny gazed at the plates set by his mother. He saw slices of grilled pork seasoned with red pungent powder, on a bed of cut banana leaves. Next to it was a bowl of nuts with the brown outer shells peeling off, placed adjacent to a bowl of fish sauce. Wafting from the plate alongside it was the aroma of burnt rice. Manny quickly lost interest and turned back to his mother.

“I don’t want this!” yelled the boy. Cecilia answered with a gentle strike to the mouth. Manny stormed into the living room, dragging his toy train with him. Rodolfo followed the boy into the next room.

He found Manny huddled on the couch, clutching a throw pillow. Manny made a smirk and threw his train on the wall. Rodolfo restrained himself and adjusted the crooked framed painting of a man and a woman huddled over a baby, with the silhouette of a manger, three men in the background, and a white star. He sat down on the couch beside his son.

“Have I ever told you the story of your first Christmas with us?” said Rodolfo.

Manny’s crumpled expression began to dissolve. He sat down calmly. He was told of the family’s migration from Bicol to Manila. They hopped from apartment to apartment. Rodolfo settled for a job as a taxi driver. Cecilia later discovered she was three months pregnant.

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Their first Christmas dinner was a meager one, a bowl of macaroni and a large bottle of soda being the only things decorating the supposedly festive dinner table. A cold breeze swept into the room, as the lights flickered on and off, eventually going out and leaving the kitchen in total darkness. All that illuminated the table was a half-melted candle. The baby was wrapped in a blanket and cradled in Rodolfo’s arms. Suddenly, Cecilia heard a knock on the door and rose from her seat.

The family wasn’t expecting company, so she wearily approached the door and slowly turned the knob. She was greeted by a stout, bearded man, holding something wrapped in cellophane and smelling of chilli. Two men stood behind him with goofy smiles plastered on their faces and plastic bags dangling from their fingers.

“We thought we’d pay our little sister a visit,” said the burly Ramon. The man behind him, Jose, barely a year older than his rotund brother, followed it up with a hug of his own, as did the scrawny Kiko.

Cecilia led them inside and into the kitchen, where Rodolfo was busy lulling the baby to sleep. She took hold of Manny and introduced him to his three uncles. Each unwrapped what they had brought.

Ramon removed the cellophane and revealed his father’s favorite Christmas dish—roast pork slices with chilli powder and ground pepper. Cecilia recalled that old Bicolano folktale their father used to tell, of the wild boar that was slain by the village folk and was struck by lightning. The chieftain was the one who had the first taste of its crispy flesh. It had been a tradition ever since to give the pork dish to a datu or the head of the family as a sign of respect and gratitude.

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Next was Jose, who unwrapped a bowl of pili nuts, their outer shells still soft and tender from being boiled. They gave off a bitter aroma. But it was overpowered by the smell of fish sauce.

“The old folks back home used to have this superstition about offering these to the spirits to keep them from stealing their children’s souls,” Jose told Rodolfo, who raised an incredulous eyebrow.

Kiko began unwrapping what he had brought. A burnt scent emanated from the plastic bag. It revealed a bowl of tutong or burnt rice. Cecilia recalled how she and her brothers fought over the last portions of rice in their mother’s pot.

A cold breeze suddenly swept into the room via the open window. Rodolfo quickly felt his way around and reached for the drawer, where he grabbed a box of matches. With a flicker, he cupped his hand over the flame and lit the candle wick. On the far end of the room was a painting of the nativity scene, with Mary, Joseph and the three kings huddled over a baby in a manger.

As the flame grew, a peculiar silhouette materialized on the wall behind the family—a mother, a father and three men huddled over a baby. The smog outside began to clear, the car horns toned down into silence and a curtain of evening clouds parted to reveal a moon adjacent to a lone star twinkling alongside its celestial better. A gust of wind surged into the room.

“What is his name?” asked Ramon.

“Emmanuel. It means,” said Rodolfo, before he was cut off mid-sentence.

“God with us,” said Cecilia.

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A bell rang in the kitchen and Manny set his toy train down on the couch as Rodolfo followed suit. In the kitchen, Cecilia was busy setting up the evening’s menu—the pork slices, the pili nuts and the tutong. Rodolfo opened the window and pulled apart the blinds to let some air into the room. As they were settling in, the lights suddenly began to flicker. The room fell dark.

After a brief moment, Cecilia opened the drawer and took out a new candle, setting it in the middle of the table. It was a timid light, yet bright enough to remind them of how the family’s first Christmas was wrapped in warmth.

Manny let the light mesmerize him and take him back to their first Christmas as a family. It was a vague memory, but it lingers in the corners of his mind just as the shadows cast by the meek candle lingers in their little room.

A gust of wind suddenly rushed into the room via the open window, and Manny began to look outside, seeing the curtains part to reveal a lone star twinkling beside a waxing moon. The family began to settle once more.

At the end of the kitchen, an old picture of the Holy Family, during the first Christmas in Bethlehem, hung on the wall.


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