A blessed Christmas tree lighting eve at the palace

In abundance was the gentle rain that poured in the early dusk of 25 November when the Christmas tree at the Malacañang garden right in front of the Kalayaan Hall was to be lighted in less than an hour.

It had been one gay afternoon when friends, government officials, local executives, legislators and their families gathered to celebrate the start of the holiday season at the Palace by the Pasig River, and feasted on a delicious native fare offered by Florabel in various food stations.

I immediately dove for the enticing pork barbecue, along with the lechon baboy and baka. Indeed a delicious way to kick off the holiday season — from my point of view, that is.

I joined the table of dear friend,  fashion muse and social manners guru Ping Valencia, who was with the Romualdez ladies, Naynay Romualdez Velez and Department of Social Welfare and Development Undersecretary Pinky Romualdez Montenegro and banker Maurice Lim.

In a while, the skies hinted of a downpour and before we could all run for shelter, the sweet drizzle turned into a spectacle of rainfall, and soon, all the VIPs were being led away by Malacañang ushers who came up with large umbrellas.

The foyer of the Kalayaan Hall soon filled up and then, we were whisked off by a private elevator to the second-floor ceremonial hall where the waiters set up an impromptu yet equally sumptuous buffet of pandesal with kesong puti,  with pandesal, sisig, barlic balot, special palabok, pinoy spaghetti, Ilocos empanada, pork BBQ, Tibok-tibok, molo soup, squid ball and fish balls. The assorted kakanin were bestsellers — biko with leche flan, sapin-sapin, puto, kutsinta, minasa cookies, barquillos, buko sherbet and palitaw.

As if these were not enough, dessert was a different category, with such favorites as special puto bumbong and bibingka, homemade sorbetes, piaya, napoleones and halo-halo.  

Without a doubt the highlight of the night was the special number of Jose Mari Chan who mesmerized the audience with his rendition of his famous Christmas songs, “Christmas In Our Hearts” and “A Perfect Christmas.” Equally enchanting was Rita Daniela, who looked lovely.

Hosts for the evening were my dear friend Issa Litton and television presenter Paulo Bediones. 

President Ferdinand Marcos delivered a rousing Christmas message enjoining the guests to enjoy the night as “we light the Christmas tree, too,” which was his way of saying the best is yet to come, with a brighter Philippines coming up in the horizon.

He noted that the Philippines celebrates the longest Christmas season in the world and “we, Filipinos, take it as a time for reflection and a time to reunite with our families and loved ones.” The First Lady, Liza Araneta-Marcos, as usual, was a big hit among the crowd, as she moved from one group to another, remembering names, and engaging in personal talk, obviously with a memory bank that always allows her to shift to a topic close to the heart of the person she is talking to.

The Christmas minstrel himself, Jose Mari Chan, is seen here performing as well as with the columnist.

I was amazed when she told Secretary Gibo Teodoro and lovely wife Nikki, that “Jojo has written about me” in their DAILY TRIBUNE’s First Lady’s Corner. I took the chance to give her a copy of my biography of Ambassador Bienvenido Tantoco Sr., An Appointment with the Vatican, which she took a look at and then held for our photo together, snapped by Dina Tantoco of the Office of the Social Secretary.

Some former presidential family members were present, including Loi Ejercito and daughter Jackie, Ricky Avancena and wife Nanette, Connie Quirino Cuneta, Poncy Quirino, Caloy Garcia Campos, and Paco Magsaysay.

Celebrity faces that shone brightly, the holiday spirit visible in their smiles, were those of Conrad Onglao and Zsa Zsa Padilla, senatorial wife Heart Evangelista, Boy Abunda and Tim Yap. Cris Villonco looked serious as she concentrated on her job, whispering orders now and then to her crew to make sure the show would go well.  

Malacanañang Social Secretary Bianca Zobel kept to the background while obviously making sure her staff was performing excellently. Kudos to her and Dina Arroyo-Tantoco, such an efficient pair of workhorses. 

And, oh, I must mention the majestic and inspiring rendition of Christmas songs by the Coro de San Jacinto of the Cagayan State University.

The President and the First Lady merrily awarded and congratulated the winners of the Malacañang Lantern competition and handed them the cash prizes donated by the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation and the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office.

The grand prize winner was the Batangas State University led by its president Tirso A. Ronquillo who, for the last decade, had led this famous southern Tagalog university that is recognized as The National Engineering University.

After which, they proceeded to the balcony of the Kalayaan Hall overlooking the front yard and witnessed the countdown to the lighting ceremony.

The night glowed as the Christmas tree lights were turned on and firecrackers exploded in all wondrous shapes and colors and the skies brightening to cap the day’s festivities. Indeed foretelling a happy, peaceful and abundant Christmas 2023.