Noche Buena

Many Americans probably don’t know this, but the Philippines starts celebrating Christmas in September. That is when the carols start playing on the radio and shops begin putting up sales displays featuring stockings and snow (tropically-adapted snow, of course, since September brings 80 degree weather). The festivities build up to December 24, when the classic Filipino tradition is for large families to gather, exchange kisses and hugs, and eat. This get-together is called a “Noche Buena,” though “Food Fest” or “Guess Which Cousin is Which” would be more apt.

There are only three things that I can be certain will make an appearance at our family’s annual Christmas Eve gathering:

1) Our cook’s revered lasagna, with the words “Merry X-Mas” written in ketchup above the topmost layer of cheese.

2) My cousin’s dogs, aptly named Peewee and Poo (you can guess why).

3) Bottles upon bottles of all kinds of wine.

Everything else—including which relatives from our gigantic extended family actually show up—is always a gamble.

This year, my family thought releasing wish lanterns into the sky at midnight would add a little more spice to the event. My cousin had bought some paper lanterns for 50 pesos apiece (a little over a dollar), which could float away with the help of a “small” flame. Of course, small flames can eventually become big flames (standard science here), so I was a little worried about the fire hazard. See, my family doesn’t have a very good track record with fire, and the fact that the instructions were in Japanese didn’t help. But mother persisted, so I obliged.

The first lantern we sent off was pretty. I thought to myself that maybe we could pull this off without a hitch—maybe we could even release many at the same time!

The second lantern we sent off, however, was not as well-formed as the first one was. In fact, its top-left corner was sagging as it floated away, and just before it cleared our fence—our bamboo fence, I might add—the paper frame caught fire. In a blink, the entire lantern was ablaze. I heard several gasps. An officer on patrol started barking into his walkie-talkie, probably for a fire truck. My grandmother turned her face away so she didn’t have to watch what we all expected would happen next.

But, miraculously, the lantern dropped to the ground just inches from anything flammable, missing the bamboo fence, the tarp covering our dining area, and a bunch of bushes. No one moved as what was left of it floated to the ground. Everyone just watched the flames die out, mouths hanging open. It was a regular Christmas miracle.

My little brother laughed first, then my uncle laughed, and, finally, I laughed. Both humored and relieved, everyone turned to each other and started wishing one another a Merry Christmas. Uncles were drunk, I had gained a few pounds, and we were probably going to be fined by the village police for setting fire hazards into the sky, but it was Christmas with my crazy family and the “noche” couldn’t be anymore “buena.”

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