If you’re a Baby Boomer, chances are you’ll recall the halcyon days of the 1960’s, a time that many of probably reminisce with a bit of fondness. I know I do. And so, as Christmas approaches, I hearken back to those days when life was simple and unaffected, and people didn’t need the sophistication and elaborateness of today’s modernity to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Living in a four-door apartment in Mayon Street, in the La Loma district of Quezon City, I remember that the Christmas season revolved almost entirely in downtown Manila. Days before December 25th, we would pile up in the family Studebaker and drive along Quezon Boulevard, line up for Majestic or Excelente ham in Quiapo, and then picked up a kilo or two of chestnuts (still called castanas in those days) along Echague Street. Along the streets festooned with brightly colored lanterns, one bought merienda fare for the kids – pilipit, hopia, rimas, banana cue, and maybe even a cold glass of halo-halo from Little Quiapo. It was a far cry from today’s instant snacks of Chippy, Piattos and Oishi Shrimp Crackers. In Acme Supermarket, mother bought the Marca Pina quezo de bola, that cheese ball imported from Holland that had the saltiness unique only in Manila. The grocery haul included tins of Darigold Condensada and Stokely Van Camps Fruit Cocktail for making fruit salad, and some Klim or Liberty Evaporada to lighten the heady flavor of Cafe Puro coffee. Nobody went for decaf, and Starbucks, still to be brewed in Seattle, Washington in 1971, was just unheard of.
Magnolia Milk (still in amber square bottles) for breakfast, Horlicks Malted Milk Tablets, Serg’s Chocolates or tootsie Rolls as treats for obedient kids, and maybe half a dozen bottles of Cosmos Sarsaparilla completed the shopping list.
We would then gravitate to Escolta for shopping in style – Oceanic Emporium for fancy dinnerware (the Duralex plates and cups that never broke), new school shoes at Ang Tibay (you had to deliberately annihilate them if you wanted a new pair), Yatco’s and Heacock’s for gentlemen’s haberdashery, Syvel’s and Walkover for adult footwear, maybe a fancy necklace at Rebullida’s or Chiok’s, or a bespoke suit at Fifth Avenue. Less expensive fare was to be had along Carriedo and Avenida Rizal, with stores like Otis Department Store and Shoe Mart (who would have known that this unassuming shop would metamorphose into the giant SM Malls?) There was nothing like a fried chicken lunch as Savory, or a mid-afternoon snack and a milk shake at the second-floor cafe in Botica Boie, or savouries at Taza de Oro in nearby Malate. The children’s playground at the deck of the Good Earth Emporium was a marvel of the times, matched only by the newfangled escalator at the Roman Cinerama Theatre, whose first offering was the panoramic epic “How The West Was Won.”
The Noche Buena dinner was the highlight of the social calendar in those days. After the last Simbang Gabi, folks would gather in our apartment to greet the coming Christmas Day with festive eating and merrymaking. The Majestic ham, now steeped for days in pineapple juice, would be the centerpiece of the dining table, astride bandejados of galantina, morcon and steaming bowls of pancit molo. The fruit cake, soaked in Tanduay Rhum and biding its time inside the Frigidaire, would make its appearance at dessert, competing with leche flan and macapuno.
The menfolk would be in the living room, huffing and puffing the filterless cigarettes of the day – Marlboro, Salem, Old Gold, Fighter and Chesterfield. Father would be mixing classic cocktails like Martinis (stirred, and not Bond’s shaken version), Gibsons (a Martini but with onions, rather than olives, as garnish), Tom Collinses, Manhattans and Old Fashioneds. The favored liquors were Dewar’s Whiskey, Martini & Rossi Dry Vermouth, Beefeater’s Gin, and Vat 69. The discussions, overpowering the din of a telecast in the back-and-white Zenith television set, would center on the socio-political events of the day – Macapagal’s ascendancy to the Presidency, Carlos Loyzaga’s hardcourt truimphs, Flash Elorde’s seizure of the Super Featherweight title, the ravings and rantings of pre-Tulfo broadcaster Damian Soto, or the menace of the new cholera strain El Tor. Movie talk was focused on the machos of 1960’s cinema – Tony Ferrer (Tony Falcon, or Agent X-44), Alberto Alonso (Agent 69), and Bernard Bonin (Palos), or the rise of local queens Cynthia Ugalde and Chona Kasten in the pantheon of international beauties.
And on Christmas morning itself, we children would gather round the tin foil tree to excitedly open our gifts. No iPads or X-Play consoles were in sight. Instead, a toy gun with faux firing caps, a Made-in-Japan tin litho spacecraft, or even a Classic Illustrated comic book were enough for us to squeal in delight. A visit to Ninongs and Ninangs was a must, and if one respectfully took the elders’ hand to one’s forehead (“Mano po”), why, he could be endowed with a Ps 2.00 bill, a mind-boggling fortune in those days. Snacks would be served – maybe Fibisco soda crackers and Pepsi-Cola (“For those who think young,” as the 1961 slogan went) – while the adults carried on with more mature conversation.
The day would then end, and another year in that retro era would soon be over. “The Christmas Song,” although composed as early as 1944 by Mel Torme and Bob Wells, and most famously sung by the Nat King Cole Trio, recollects those untroubled days of yore, when traditions ruled the Season, and simple family togetherness, unembellished by the fancy and often pretentious celebrations of this age, were more than enough to enliven the spirit and give meaning to Christ’s first coming.