Ours was more than a Christmas tree, with its giant pink silk butterflies nesting on twinkling branches. My beloved mom sent us those butterflies handcrafted in my birthland.
Butterflies do not represent Christmas, someone would always think they know better to remind me upon beholding the inescapable 7-footer in our living room. They metamorphose in their cocoons and don’t flutter out in the winter, certainly not to perch on icy leafless twigs, they’d declare. And pink, why?
Neither do evergreen bloom with grow red, green or gold balls, I could have shot back. Nor do angels magically land on treetops to protect the hillock of presents from hands that can’t wait till the precise time to know if they’d been naughty or nice. Allegedly.
It’s all about symbols, silly, I’d reply.
The late Philippine Senator Tessie Aquino – Oreta, whose butterfly-bedecked tree in her pre-People Power home in exile in South San Francisco, inspired my family’s tree-in-diaspora. Naturally the Oreta butterflies were yellow.
Tessie was kind enough to share the source of her butterflies. A daughter, if memory serves, of Senator Lorenzo Tanada, the human and civil rights champion, a foe of the dictatorship. Luckily a son of Ka Tanny was married to the sister of one of my sisters-in-law, a common connection in Manila, where our family paths intersected.
My newspaper columnist father’s values paralleled Tanada’s. When Dad passed on Dec. 16, 1989, mom joined my family in Daly City, becoming our only son Juan Miguel’s best friend. She told him of holidays in the ancestral homeland – the nine dawn masses or Simbang Gabi, the fragrant bibingka (rice cake) and ensaimadas or brioche-like pastries awaiting afterward.
Because mom was the eldest of six siblings, our Manila home became reunion central, especially during the holidays. My parents made sure everyone received a present, even after the newspaper publishing his column was shut down by the repressive government for challenging the dictatorship. Mom stood by Dad through his crusade, even if her closest relatives were diehard allies of the dictator.
We traveled to Antipolo to choose our tree from a friend’s farm, but as newcomers in California we merely picked from the garden center of a department store. Every year our tree with pink butterflies perfumed our home and brought back memories of the loving family we missed so dearly. Until 2008, when my mother passed away, and I lost the will to decorate for the holidays.
Every year I wonder if Mike and I would get a tree again, liberate the pink butterflies hibernating in the garage. Maybe soon, now that Juan and Crystel have Joaquin, 8, and Matias, 6, to listen our stories of their brave and resilient ancestors.
(Cherie M. Querol Moreno is Executive Editor of Philippine News Today.)