MANILA, December 24, 2005
 (STAR) BUSINESS & LEISURE By Ray Butch Gamboa - Itís the last day of shopping, so you still have today to brave the traffic, brave the madding crowds in the malls, and risk adding to your mounting credit card bills. What the heck, itís Christmas, and you canít leave out a name in your list which, by the way, seems to get padded every year.

For everyone, this season, although touted to be the merriest in the year, almost always turns out to be the most stressful. All of us have our own personal lists of people to give presents to, in addition to the familyís list. If youíre an employer, you just have to cope with the mounting bonuses that have to be given out. If youíre a housewife, the familyís list is your problem, on top of your kidsí presents, the hubbyís, the neighborsí, and the menu that has to be worked out for the family Noche Buena and the yearly reunion on Christmas Day. My hats off to the mothers and wives who have to reckon with the commercial sense of Yuletide ó no one can seem to take these concerns out of your hands, because no one can do it as efficiently and as sensibly as you can. Come to think about it, Iíd rather cope with the 13th month woes than tackle the one hundred and one little concerns that you have to contend with. Itís a virtual juggling act, but somebody has to do it. I know, I know. Itís Christmas.

The only merry ones really are the kids, and the grown up children who just worry if they are really going to get the gifts they are yearning for. But for Filipino families, Christmas is all about family traditions. Gift-giving is a practice that cannot be removed from our particular race. In the office, the boss down to the janitor has to be in the list. All the aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins, nephews and nieces to the nth degree have to unwrap something on Christmas Day at the family reunion, or thereís hell to pay for the whole of next year, until you undo the harm with a nicely-wrapped present next December.

For most families, Christmas is also all about food. Even the humblest of homes have to have a leg of ham on the table. In our home, the staple includes the ubiquitous Queso de Bola (Pato or Pina), the price of which, by the way, has gone up quite a bit this year, and the ever-present macaroni salad. This may seem too simple and ordinary for most people, but believe it or not, Christmas is not complete in our home without this humble fare. Itís my late motherís recipe which includes chunks of chicken, at least a dozen hard-boiled eggs, grated cheese, pineapple, and about three cans of pimiento. Most people donít bother with the pimiento, but believe me; this ingredient gives the macaroni salad more character. The piquant taste of pickles rounds off the over-all taste of the salad, while the hard-boiled eggs give it a homey feel. Over-all, itís a taste that I look forward to every December, like other people look forward to their family-style pochero or chicken galantina. In fact, I can have it every night for a whole week before Christmas Day.

As usual, this year, the family reunion of the Gamboas will be in our house. I do look forward to seeing the old aunts whom I only see once a year, during Christmas. There are new nephews and nieces, or more like grandnephews and grandnieces. Their parents used to run around the house just a few years ago, wreaking havoc on our Christmas tree, and now they have their own passels to continue the tradition. Where have all the years gone?

Our reunion starts off with lunch, a huge one, complete with lechon and roast Prime Rib, but since everyone had a late night, lunch is always at 2 p.m. If youíre a bona fide member of the clan, you know better than to show up at 12 noon. Lunch is a long, languid affair that lasts up to about four in the afternoon. Then groups drift off to age cliques, and there is quite a lot of catching up to do. Then the exchange of gifts happens at around six or seven in the evening, because some of the family members have dinner engagements with the other side of the family. Those that do stay know that, always, always, the dinner table will have a big bowl of lechon paksiw from the lunchís huge lechon.

Over the years, nothing much has changed except for new faces and some of the old and ancient relatives who have passed on. It really doesnít matter. Everyone still looks forward to the paksiw na lechon and all the other tired old recipes on the table. Me ó Iím happy with my combination of Chinese ham, queso de bola and my bowl of macaroni salad.

* * *

I must have been too busy last month, so I overlooked my bill on my Citibank credit card. It was just a gasoline bill amounting to a measly P2,000, and I was late for almost a month. Not like me to be late, really, with bills like this, but the bill got lost in the stack of papers on my desk, so I overlooked it entirely until it appeared in my next monthís billing. Imagine my surprise, and chagrin, when I saw that, as penalty for an overdue account of P2,000, Citibank charged me Php 500.

What? A surcharge of 25 percent?

I tried calling Citibank to get to the bottom of this, but between one automated voice to another, I couldnít get anywhere with them. The cold, impersonal voice always leaves me, well, cold. Nothing like talking to a real warm-blooded person on the other line who can relate to your problems. Anyway, to cut to the chase, I just gave up on it and paid the darn bill. I wasnít going to waste my whole afternoon chasing after P500, but all these make me think ó should I continue using my Citibank card?

A Merry Christmas and Prosperous New Year to All.

Mabuhay!!! Be proud to be a Filipino.

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