A Lump Of Coal For Christmas

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This blog entry about the events of Friday, December 24, 2004 was originally posted on December 28, 2004.

DAY 433:  In the New Jersey suburbs just outside of New York City, my mother and half of her siblings had relocated and recreated the family communal feel of the Bulacan farm over three houses in the same neighborhood.  It is Rivera Clan West, or R.C.W., an acronym I made up just now.

Christmas is a festive time at RCW, as it is yet another excuse to get everyone together for a meal — it doesn’t take much to make up an excuse usually, because they have one almost every weekend, especially in the summer.  Christmas is also the time of the year when the family gathers around to watch Christmas videos and play, for cash prizes, the game Perfection, that one where you have to put all the different-shaped pegs in all the holes before the timer runs out. 

Christmas is a particular time of year when the Riveras’ sense of humor comes into play.  For example, if one kid was particularly naughty over the year, s/he would receive a gift, all wrapped up nice-like.  Upon shredding off the gift wrap, opening the box, and digging through the tissue paper, s/he would ultimately find a gag gift:  a lump of coal, just like the one Ebenezer Scrooge gave Bob Cratchett before he had to go back to work in the immortal Dickens’ classic story, A Christmas Carol.  There are some classic looks on kids’ faces upon the discovery of the lump of coal, especially with my Tita Bien laughing and pointing at them.

One lump of coal + gift wrap = Christmas hilarity.


MEANWHILE, AT THE RIVERA CLAN FARM in Bulacan, Philippines, a lump of coal can actually be a lot of fun.  I know this because one of the family activities this Christmas was to sit in the kubo and play the card game, “One, Two, Three, Pass!”, a game where, in a rapid succession, everyone has to pass an unwanted card from their hand to the next person after three counts.  The object of the game is to get a four-of-a-kind and then slam your hand in the center of the table.  Once this happens, everyone has to put his/her hand into the pile (picture above) — the last one on top is the loser, and has to get a black streak added to his/her face with a lump of coal.

Needless to say, the game and the lump of coal provided for hours of enjoyment and multiple streaks on my face as well as all of my cousins, except for Malyn (right) who got away streak-free.

One lump of coal + deck of cards = Christmas hilarity.


THIS ISN’T TO SAY CHRISTMAS DAY wasn’t all fun and games.  As a Catholic home, we did go to church for Christmas mass after all, and at the groggy-eyed morning hour of 6 a.m. to beat the rush.  It was a pretty anti-climactic mass, completely in Tagalog.  “Did you understand any of that?” my cousin Chie asked me.

“Just ‘Alleluia,’” I said. 

We went to mass so early in the morning to leave more room in the day for more important things, namely eating.  As I said before, Filipinos will find just about any excuse to get together for a meal, whether it be “the birthday of Jesus Christ” or because “it’s Saturday and the weather is nice.”  For big festive occasions, the traditional Filipino culinary centerpiece is lechon, a whole roasted suckling pig — head, feet, tail and all.  Someone carves, or hacks rather, the pig into small pork pieces for consumption, although the most prized part of the pig is not the meat but the skin, the chicharron (pork rind), which people rip off the pig, dip in a sweet and spicy sauce and crunch away.

And speaking of Filipino cuisine, I must mention another I had that Christmas afternoon, balut, which appears to be a regular hard-boiled egg until you crack it open and find out it is filled with a duck fetus and all its surrounding nourishing development organsBalut is not only a delicacy in the Philippines but in other southeast Asian nations, as well as on the reality television show Fear Factor.

Back in America, I had serious reservations to eating such a thing, but for some reason I had no qualms about eating it in the Philippines.  When in Rome, do as the Romans do; when in the Philippines, eat an aborted hard-boiled duck fetus.  It sounds disgusting when you put it like that, and I’m actually amazed that I didn’t flinch or second-guess when I ate one with no problem.  I cracked one open, sucked out the “juice,” and then ate it all up, minus the really tough white part.

As I said before, if I couldn’t talk like a Filipino yet, at least I could eat like one.


AS FOR SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE, my Tagalog was coming along slowly.  I was actually surprised with myself with all the phrases I already knew and spoke when the occasion called for it.  Mamya (later); hindi (no); dito (here); wala ng cards (there are no cards).  I began to use Tagalog, filling in the gaps with English, the way Filipinos do anyway.  This blend of Tagalog and English is known as “Taglish.”


CHRISTMAS WASN’T A REALLY BIG DEAL down on the farm; sure there was a Christmas tree, but that was about it.  Everyone had sort of grown out of the gift-giving thing, probably because everyone was always so busy texting messages on their cell phones.  My cousin Aileen and her kids dropped by, as well as my mom’s first cousin, who seems to be busy walking caribou around

After a screening of Dodgeball and Anacondas: The Hunt For The Blood Orchid on bootleg (two great family Christmas movies), it was back to business as usual like Bob Cratchett.  That evening, relatives from my father’s side of the family dropped by for a Christmas greeting, two of my grandaunts and my Tita Josie, who wanted to figure out my schedule so that she could organize a plan for us to the other islands of the Philippine archipelago when she got off of work on January 6th.  It was actually a lot of work straightening out schedule conflicts with other relatives, and who would take me where, etc.  The whole thing was overwhelming to me with multiple parties trying to plan out the next three weeks for me — totally unlike my style, even before I started this independent do-stuff-on-a-whim trip around the world.  At home, when people ask me “What are you doing Saturday?” I often reply, “I don’t know.  Ask me Saturday.”

No matter; everything was sorted out during the “business meeting,” which was a meeting, not surprisingly, over a meal.  I’m telling you, Filipinos will find an excuse to get together for a meal every time.






Next entry: Spider-Man In The Batcave

Previous entry: Delusions Of Grandma




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Comments for “A Lump Of Coal For Christmas”

  • balut…ewww…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/28  at  12:51 PM


  • yeah - I can’t believe you ate balut….gross…..you might as well have dipped it in patis too =)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/28  at  01:10 PM


  • oh, the balut picture is not good.  Poor baby duck :(

    Posted by Liz  on  12/28  at  02:10 PM


  • ewwwww, gross. balut’s one thing i don’t ever plan to have.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/28  at  04:33 PM


  • Mmmmmm, duck fetus.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/28  at  04:41 PM


  • mabuhay, erik! we,re fine here in texas! me and tita agie read and watch the pictures right now. we get a little bit hungry with the lechon and the balut we’ve seen!!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/29  at  02:17 AM


  • balut….i feel sick.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/30  at  05:53 PM


  • DTELL1:  Just practicing for AR or Fear Factor…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/30  at  05:55 PM


  • hey kuya erik! sarap ng balut di ba? ang panget ng uling sa mukha natin, hehe. maintindihan mo sana tong sinabi ko, hehe… smile

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/31  at  08:30 AM


  • hi! hello! kumusta? anong ginagawa mo? next time, pagpunta mo ulit sa pilipinas kakain tayo ng kwek-kwek. nakalimutan ko ipatikim sayo. wahahaha

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/31  at  08:35 AM


  • sana magsalita ka na ng tagalog sa susunod kasi pag hinde, iintsikin kita! hahaha…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/31  at  08:41 AM


  • CHIE/MALYN/ABET:  Hey, ano ba?  Happy New Year!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/31  at  01:33 PM


  • Yes, I’m all over the “ew - balut” comments.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/31  at  08:57 PM


  • un lang nasabi mo. “ano ba” in tagalog??? u suck! hahahahahaha… peace! happy new year! im back at work. smile

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/01  at  11:33 PM


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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Previous entry:
Delusions Of Grandma




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