Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Christmas Feature: The secret of our “bakawan” Christmas Tree

Potential Christmas Tree ... The mangrove tree (left and right pictures) commonly known as "bakawan" which is an ideal material for a Christmas tree. A better-looking "bakawan" is always available inside the mangrove jungle where it grows in abundance in all shapes and forms.

The secret of our “bakawan” Christmas Tree

Batch 65
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

AS A CHILD, I had looked forward to December because of Christmas.

But it was more than that - I knew that it's time for me and my friends in Parang to set out into the mangrove jungle to scout for our favorite tree for the season - the "bakawan" Christmas Tree. For us, it could not be just any tree - it should be bakawan because it usually had the shape that we wanted for a Christmas Tree.

Parang, the barrio where my family lived in Jose Panganiban, Camarines Norte, in the Philippines until the late 1960s, sat right in front of Mambulao Bay whose waters streamed inward into the village backyard where it fed a huge mangrove jungle lush with "nipa" palms, bushes and "bakawan".

The mangrove forest was also home to a host of wild birds, insects, crabs and tiger prawns.

As far as our family and those of my friends' were concerned, the bakawan Christmas Tree was one thing that we could afford to have every Christmas.

There were other kinds of trees sold in the market, but they were made of plastic and were always expensive. Because of this, I think that most of the households in the village had opted to build their Christmas Trees from the wild mangrove species.

As firewood, bakawan was mostly used to fire the ovens of almost all "panaderias" (bakery) in the country during those days in the 1950s. But this tree would take the spotlight during the holiday season when it snatched a cherished place at home among Christmas presents from our parents and friends and relatives.

It had always been wild fun to go deep into the muddy jungle as we hunted for a specially -- shaped bakawan that would fit the one we wanted -- about two meters tall, with a shape that looked like the head of an arrow and with many big and small branches where we could hang those colorful bells and balls and cut-out stars made of cigarette foil and those Christmas cards that had accumulated over the years.

Although there would usually be a thousand of them growing profusely all over the jungle from which to pick our choice, only very few would match the descriptions. That's why it had always took us almost half the day struggling on our way deep into the sticky mangrove mud just to find the one that we intended to pamper at home.

A lush colony of Bakawan trees
But once we had found it, it surely was one reason for some excitement among us tree-hunters and in our families back in Parang. At home, my siblings and I would start stripping it of leaves until it was bare to its trunk and branches.

Father, as soon as he came home from work at the Philippine Iron Mines (PIM) in Larap, would prepare its base on which the tree was to stand, by fashioning it from a slab of sawn timber. The next step was to paint it white all over to camouflage the rough and dark surface of the bark.

The Christmas stuff that our family had accumulated over the years would soon resurface in the middle of the house. It was something that we would ignore for most of the year only to become one of the most cherished items come the holiday season.

Very soon, they would be all over the tree, like the old blinking Christmas lights that had always perked up the mood at home once its cord was plugged on or say, the Christmas chains and giant red socks and of course, the many old Christmas cards that mother had stashed away in a shoebox over the years.

While working on our tree, Mother would tell us that maybe one of the nights towards Christmas Day, Santa Claus would drop by to fill the space around its base and branches with goodies.

News like this had always caused me and my three younger siblings to rejoice.
That's why the song "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" was our favorite. It had always given us a live picture of the Fat Man in red and his goodies in the red sack as they were being pulled skyward and from one rooftop to another by the jolly reindeers.

On the night when we finally completed decorating our tree and the lights started blinking as soon as its cord was plugged, my siblings and I began to wonder as to when Santa Claus would come to visit us. But then, we knew he would come as he did in the past although we never caught him dumping Christmas presents onto our tree-base.

Father was working the 2pm-to-10pm shift at the iron mine during those weeks and had not seen us worked on the tree's finishing touches. We thought that it would really surprise him to see a full-blown Christmas Tree in the middle of the house - minus, of course, the much-anticipated presents from our slippery nocturnal intruder.

Waking up one early morning just two days before Christmas Day, we were startled to see the base of the tree covered with gift-wrapped boxes, while small "supot" (brownish paper packets) heavy with our favorite Peter Paul's candies and chocolate bars as well as green and red apples and Sunkist oranges hung from the branches.

The toy gun that I had been pestering father about was there, and so the cheap dolls and toy cars for my two sisters and brother. There were other gift-wrapped items lying at the tree-base which were for mother and father and for some close relatives who lived at the farm.

And we asked: Was Santa here last night?

Over at breakfast, mother and father casually told us Santa Claus came over the night before when we were snoring and left us with lots of things, which we could open on Christmas Day.

For the next several years until I was second year in high school, the same Christmas Story - the unseen coming of Santa one Christmas Eve to leave us with his stuff - had always thrilled us. And under the Christmas Tree or on its branches, he would leave us our favorite Peter Paul's candies and chocolates, toys and a lot more goodies.

ONE DECEMBER morning when the whole community was gearing up for the Big Day - the birthday of Jesus - Mom sent me to the miners' co-operative store in Larap - the NAMAWU (short for National Miners and Allied Workers Union).

Larap, which was a mining community just five kilometers from Parang, was host to the coop store where we bought the goods that we needed to cook for our "Noche Buena". And since it was my first time to come to NAMAWU, I was quite excited because I expected to see new things outside my village.

Immediately, I took off on the mine's shuttle bus that regularly stopped in Parang to pick up work-bound miners and other workers that included my dad.

At NAMAWU, while waiting for the sales assistant to pack my goods, I happened to notice a huge heap of familiar-looking "supot" which were being sorted out on the other side of the counter.

And to my big surprise, I found out that each "supot" contained goodies that I had been seeing every Christmas season hanging from the branches of our bakawan Christmas Tree - Peter Paul's candies and chocolates!

Immediately, my mind downloaded some scenes from that Christmas night last year. It was during that night when our tree suddenly bloomed with our favorite treats and more while we - sisters Helen and Susan, brother Arnel and me - were past asleep.

It dawned on me that the Fat Man in red attire whom we knew had always carried a bagful of Christmas presents for kids NEVER came to see us like we had been told always by mother and father:

That he came in the dead of the night.

All along, it was father who tricked us every Christmas, and looking at those "supot" of Peter Paul's sweets lying on the counter, I knew he'd be at it again this coming Christmas Eve.

But I never told my siblings about my discovery, worried lest I might bust this lovely myth.

FROM Port Moresby to the Global Mambulaoans and All, Merry Christmas ...!

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