My first experince with Simbang Gabi started like this: Mama tomato and Daddy tomato are walking along the road (presumably to shop for a new topsy-turvy for their growing family), when they notice that Baby tomato is quite far behind (probably from admiring the cute cherry tomatoes they passed.) Daddy tomato yells to Baby tomato, “Ketchup!!”
Get it? Like Catch Up — ketchup?!
I didn’t get it at first because I am kind of slow (like Baby tomato). Once my husband explained it to me though, I thought it was funny. Of course, I added the part about the topsy-turvy and the cherry tomatoes to spice it up a little bit – salsa anyone?
The priest used the tomato joke to explain a tradition in the Filipino community that includes a Novena to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary in anticipation of Christmas, called Simbang Gabi. It is nine days of going to mass and then celebrating after with food, traditional dance, and songs. The last day of the Novena falls on Christmas Eve.
While my husband is Filipino, this has not been a tradition in his family. However, this year, one of the nine nights of the Novena was at our parish church, so we attended the celebration. Most of the mass was in the Filipino language, Tagalog, which I don’t understand so I let my mind and eyes wander. I was amazed at how packed the church was, and how the few Caucasians stood out like white rice in a vat of black beans. (I am mixing ethnic food here, but that’s what ignorant white people do – especially when they really like black beans and rice.)
I was relieved that the priest did the homily in English.
Perhaps because I was just excited to understand anything at this point, I appreciated the simplistic way he explained Simbang Gabi, two complicated words for a white girl who only knows 5 words in Tagalog: grandmother, grandfather, thank you and butt.
One could argue that it is merely three words when you consider that the only difference between grandmother and grandfather is the different vowels at the end. Thank-you is a phrase, so if I had to break it up into separate words, meanings could get mutilated in translation. Alas, the word butt I learned from my children and as far as I understand there are no nuances with it – it’s what my people always called a hiney. Apparently, my children’s Lola (grandmother) always made sure they wiped their puett (butt) when they were small. Salamat Po (thank you) God … and Lola!
Anyway, the point which I have long lost is that those nine days spent preceding Christmas are the Filipino’s way of catching up with Jesus. It ensures that their focus is on Him, instead of shelf elves and Santa suits. It is inarguably a beautiful and meaningful tradition.
For me, this time-gap between Christmas and New Year’s Day is a little like Baby tomato playing catch-up, but in the best possible way. All of the pressure of Christmas has been swept away along with the last bit of tiny pine needles on my living room floor. (Yes, we take our tree down before New Year’s Eve, and certainly before the January 6 tradition of Little Christmas. Did I mention the pine needles nesting in 3-inch high mounds from our dehydrated tree whose stand the cat and dog think of as a clever water dispenser?)
I have resigned myself to eating extra black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day to compensate for any lost luck from this religious and cultural faux pas.
Anyway, with New Year’s resolutions still-forming, but unimplemented, it’s a wonderful time to simply catch up. So that has been what I have been doing in ways that feel decadent — like spending time with old friends and reading back issues of favorite magazines that boast all kinds of projects and recipes that I have thankfully avoided from Labor Day until Christmas. How’s that for strategy? No need to learn how to concoct witches brew post-Christmas. After all, Halloween is so passé and has nothing to do with current trends of organization, goal-setting, and weight-loss.
Catching up in more practical ways, I have cleaned out a few closets, cabinets and drawers trying to fill shopping bags with the clutter that accumulated over the past year. I LOVE doing this. My excitement for streamlining- as I like to call it, borders on freakish. There is something so cathartic about stripping down my possessions (okay, and my children’s too) in order to live more simply, with only things that we use or our meaningful.
One thing I procrastinate most of the year is making a photo-book about family happenings from the preceding year. These are my propaganda books; they are by design potential weapons for me to pull-out someday if, perchance, my children tell me they are in therapy because of their stinking, rotten-tomato childhoods.
If my boys declare war on the memory of their mostly idyllic childhood, these books are my secret weapon. I will assure them with these hard-copy books that contain nothing but smiling-happy faces on page after glossy page that our family was filled with happy times, moments of fantasy and vacations that no matter how great the destination had their most important component – a souvenir. (Despite whether their trip was to the Magic Kingdom or the Grand Canyon these souvenirs are almost exclusively made in China.) That’s not what matters though, for them it was part of what made their trip special. For my husband and me, our stint spent in gift shops losing time to their indecision, and money to China will always be memorable.
Really though, the yearly photo books are there to preserve cherished memories and experiences that are unique to our family. They will be here years later, when we need to catch up with lost traditions, or when they need to begin new ones with their own families. They will be there when they need to reconnect with their origins possibly to have a better sense of self, and hopefully, they will be there to remind them of our devotion to loving them when we have long passed from this world. Perhaps I should stop calling them propaganda books and call them priority books, but that just makes me too sad.
When the yearly photo-book finally arrives in the mail, it includes all of the best memories hand-picked by mama, precisely arranged and expertly captioned with details of who they are and what they have done, representing countless hours of my time and effort – more importantly representing who they were at a particular moment in time. Yet, I only read through the book once, mostly checking for typos and that the layout and design are to my liking. Then, I put it on the shelf in our living room, and move on to making new memories.
The truth is it is too hard for me to look back at past years and see how round their faces once were, and to see how small they were despite the fact that even then, I was lamenting how much they had already grown.
So, while the world didn’t end as the Mayans predicted, the end of another year and another photo book appears inevitable. Indeed it all passes too quickly, but with the promise of a new year ahead, happy memories wait to be made. This time with my children won’t last forever, despite how badly I want to capture their laughter, silly dance moves, and even hoard for myself all those tossed aside souvenirs that remind me of so much more than the places we have been.
It is time to live and love in this moment so that the only catching up left to do will be flipping through the pages of old photo books, reminiscing with full hearts of this old joke we used to tell about Mama, Daddy and Baby tomato.