Of the many references to Christmas in the five-volume compilation of Jose Rizal’s correspondence, the formal but surly letter dated Dec. 25, 1896, stands out.
From his prison cell in Fort Santiago, Rizal addressed his defense counsel, Luis Taviel de Andrade, with these words:
“I have been waiting for you this morning to speak with you about an important matter, but undoubtedly your pursuits did not permit you to come. If you have time to spare, I should like to speak with you before I appear before the council. I would appreciate it very much, this afternoon, this evening, or [tomorrow] morning.
“Wishing you Merry Christmas, I reiterate, I am, as ever, your attentive, affectionate servant and client who kisses your hand.”
Rizal usually displayed grace under pressure, he was to do so shortly before his execution when a military doctor felt his pulse and was surprised to find it normal, though Christmas 1896 was far from merry.
Over the holidays he was tried for treason and sentenced to die before the dawn of a new year, the ghosts of Christmases past haunted him as he contemplated death and the remote possibility of a pardon from the governor general.
Laughing until dawn
His last merry Christmas was in 1895. As an exile in Dapitan together with Josephine Bracken, his students and friends, he recalled: “We celebrated merrily, as almost always. We roasted a small pig and hen. We invited our neighbors. There was dancing, and we laughed a great deal until dawn.”
There was no lechon, no noche buena feast in Fort Santiago in 1896. Past Christmases brought memories of noche buena at home and abroad, of comfort food, Christmas trees, Nativity scenes, kissing under the mistletoe and other delights. In a letter to his friend Ferdinand Blumentritt he wrote:
“I will spend Christmas Eve  with [Dr. Maximo Viola] and young Moret, who is sending you his Christmas greetings. Many thanks for your kind invitation. I should like to see a Christmas celebration with a Christmas tree, but the families who know me have invited me only for the New Year, either because they have no children or their children are already big. At home [in Calamba], the whole family partake of a good soup at midnight, and the children decorate a Belen with an image of the Child Jesus, with animals, etc. This season is the most beautiful and pleasant we have in the Philippines.”
In 1888, Rizal wrote Blumentritt:
“Today is Christmas Eve. This is the feast that I like to celebrate best. It reminds me of the many happy days not only of my childhood but also of history. Whether Christ was born or not exactly on this day, I don’t know; but chronological accuracy has nothing to do with tonight’s event. A grand genius had been born who preached truth and love; who suffered because of His mission, but on account of His sufferings, the world has become better, if not saved. Only it gives me nausea to see how some persons abuse His name to commit numerous crimes. If He is in heaven, He will certainly protest! Consequently, Merry Christmas! Let us celebrate the anniversary of the birth of a Divine Man!”
Packages from home
While in Europe, Rizal eagerly appreciated packages from home that contained all sorts of things: letters, miki noodles, guava jelly, silk handkerchiefs from Baliwag, a pair of personalized slippers with his name embroidered on them, etc.
Once he declined a Christmas gift of P50 from his sister Narcisa and her husband Tonino. He wrote his parents: “I’m very grateful to them but see how they can be repaid, because such a token of affection may compel my other brothers-in-law to do the same and I don’t want such a thing ever to happen. I hope you enjoyed Christmas with all your grandchildren whose number I should like to see tripled upon my return so I can put up a school for them alone.”
Not content with that he also wrote his eldest sister Neneng (Saturnina) to explain further:
“I’m very very grateful to Tonino and Sra. Sisa for the money they sent me. However, if I am to be believed as I wish to be believed now, I beg you not to send me any more money. The source of this money is good but the effect is saddening. My other brothers [in-law] who cannot send me money will be sorry because of their inability to do so. And if they would also send me [some], following the example of the others, I cannot accept it, except with regret, knowing that it has meant a great sacrifice for them. I don’t know if they can understand what I’m trying to say or if I say it correctly; please try to explain it.
“Another thing is that for me even a little suffices. Why should they retrench to give me money? If I need money, I’m going to ask for it. Between us brothers it is not necessary to express our desires; we understand one another. Ordinarily, not all good desires and generosity produce sweet fruits. Your affection is enough for me.”
Rizal’s letters document how he celebrated Christmas, what he thought of Christmas customs and the spirit of the season. They remain touching and relevant for us a century after because Christmas for the Filipino is a time for family.
Happy New Year
One of the simplest and most charming letters Rizal wrote was to his nephew Mauricio Cruz on the importance of study. In it, he gave a simple lesson in English as follows:
“Para Moris en Manila. Aprende mucho porque el que no sabe recibe coscorrones. Te deseo felices Pascuas y buen Añonuevo. Felices Pascuas en Ingles Merry Christmass (sic) Feliz Añonuevo Happy New Year. Moris, you must be a good boy, Your uncle J. Rizal. (To Moris in Manila. Study well because those who don’t learn receive coscorrones [a rap on the head with the knuckles, kutusin in Filipino]. I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Felices Pascuas in English is Merry Christmass [sic] Feliz Añonuevo Happy New Year. Moris you must be a good boy, Your uncle J. Rizal.)”
It is obvious Rizal deserves coscorrones too for misspelling Christmas and reminding many of us who forget, that he was human like you and me. Rizal’s humanity reminds us that we don’t need a body-hugging costume or a bullet in the back to be heroes ourselves.