ESCOLTA - Seven Decades of Gifts


War destroyed Manila and forced its population to live austerely during the years of reconstruction and recovery. This was very deeply felt during the Christmas season.

As a post-WWII child, my first memories of Christmas gifts were simple clothes from aunts and uncles and inexpensive toys from godparents. Our own parents and grandparents gave practical stuff: school bags, boxes of crayons, umbrellas, and raincoats to replace the salakot (palm frond hat) that we wore to school. Often, we received several pairs of beautiful bakya (wooden shoes), which wore out fast as we walked two kilometers to and from school daily.

SALAKOT BY RYAN MALABONGA - Seven Decades of Gifts

Salakot (palm frond hat photo by Ryan Malabonga)

One unforgettable Christmas package came all the way from New York City. My US-based godmother Dr. Soledad Manalac sent a red velvet dress identical to one worn by child actress Shirley Temple. There was just one problem: I was 16 and a college freshman who was not about to walk around campus looking like a cinema doll. I loved the dress. It’s always the thought that counts.

We were initiated into gift-giving in primary school, where teachers introduced us to the concept of classroom exchange gifts. Each student was required to bring a wrapped gift. The gifts were numbered and raffled off. Everybody received something. Because we were in public school, the gifts were simple and inexpensive: a small bath soap, plastic toothbrush, comb, pocket mirror, handkerchief, plastic coin purse.

For close boy friends, I made slingshots (tirador) using guava branches, old bicycle interior tires, and leather scraps. For girl friends, I embroidered initials on cheap hankies.

Piled Bakya BY JOAN VILLARANTE KAVIANIFAR - Seven Decades of Gifts

Bakya (wooden shoes photo by Joan Villarante Kavianifar)

High school gifts were dull store-bought stuff: ribbons, hair clips, wallets, large bars of bath soap, cheap cologne, scrapbooks.

By 1960, in college, I was supplementing my school allowance by working as a tourist guide on weekends. I had enough to buy Christmas presents for my family from shops all over downtown Manila.

At Good Earth Emporium along Rizal Avenue, I bought a polo shirt and a pair of Gold Toe black socks for grandpa. For Lola Tina, I found an antique tortoise shell payneta (comb) with silver floral décor in a junk shop inside Arranque market. A leather belt for my father and a shawl for my mom were the finds at Aguinaldo’s Department Store on Escolta.

A few years later, my income improved as did my gift-shopping trips. I had discovered the exquisite imported items sold by a small shop along San Marcelino. Rustan’s looked like an aunt’s living room after she returned from a shopping frenzy around the world. I got a set of handpainted Italian oil and vinegar cruets for my favorite aunt. She cherished it so much it stayed on display, unused, in her China cabinet for 50 years.

Oceanic Commercial became my favorite store for dinnerware and special wedding gifts. Oriental specialties were introduced by Matsuzakaya, a major Japanese department store that opened a branch in Cubao, just behind Assandas. It specialized in imported foods, up-market luxury goods, clothes, textiles, accessories, housewares, furniture, white-goods, and personal products.

Gift-giving has become very easy and efficient. But why do I miss the bad old days?

Imported items were also plentiful at Cartimar, a shopping center for smuggled items along Taft Avenue in Pasay City. From the 1960s to the 1980s, it was not unusual to drive as far as Angeles City and the areas around Subic Naval Base to buy PX goods, foreign-made items bought by US servicemen from commissaries of US bases. These made impressive (and much welcome) gifts for any occasion.

In the meantime, fashion and many aspects of life were revolutionized by the peace-loving hippies. They espoused long hair, flowers, music, free love, and back-to-nature living. Popular gifts were beads, headbands, bandannas, scarves, plants, Indian knick knacks, fringed leather vests, and cheesecloth bags.

By late 1985, the Philippines was so politicized that even gift-giving was invaded by the protest movement. President Marcos announced in November that Snap Elections were to be held in February. Protests and politics eclipsed the yuletide season. The most popular gifts were t-shirts with political messages, which everybody collected and wore. The euphoria did not last long. The shirts disappeared from the streets after a season.

Electronic toys and games crept into the scene as computers entered the workplace. Home computers became as ordinary as toasters and coffee makers. Introduction of the internet drastically changed the way people live and shop. Everyone is online, doing everything online. No more window shopping, fitting rooms, traffic jams, parking problems. All you need is a credit card and a smart phone.

Gift-giving has become very easy and efficient. But why do I miss the bad old days?

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