My Ateneo Christmas

How was your Christmas? I hope it was filled with lots of good food and great presents! (And not so many nosy relatives.) I enjoyed a nice, low-key Christmas with my family at my sister’s house in Laguna, with our usual holiday traditions: carving up the Majestic ham with the wrong knife, fruits and queso de bola at the Noche Buena table, and guessing what each present is before opening it (something my mom is really good at).

Aside from these holiday rituals, there’s one Christmas tradition I truly treasure… but it’s not one that I share with my family. And that’s celebrating Christmas at my university, the Ateneo de Manila.

For me, Christmas isn’t complete until I do what I’ve been doing for nearly 10 years, which is sing at the last Simbang Gabi mass before Christmas, on the evening of December 23rd. As part of the Ateneo Chamber Singers (which always sings at the same mass every year), I did this all the way until I moved to Singapore. Even when I wasn’t in the choir anymore, I’d still fly home, make the trip to the university, and sing at mass with my friends.

My Ateneo Christmas always makes me feel that I’ve come home. In fact, my Ateneo Christmas has a home: the university church, the Church of the Gesu. I think it’s one of the most beautiful Catholic churches in Manila, but I may be biased.

It’s illuminated by garlands upon garlands of Christmas lights, strung from the massive trees lining Bellarmine Field in front of the church.

It’s warmed (and fed!) by freshly cooked bibingka—rice cakes with hot butter, salted egg and grated coconut, for my non-Pinoy friends—and light, crisp churros con chocolate.

It’s made beautiful by the gentle faces of the Nativity by the altar, and by the decorations hanging from the highest point of the Gesu’s peaked ceiling. They’re different every year, but they’re almost always in the school colors of blue and white.

And my Ateneo Christmas is filled with music—with songs that I’ve known by heart for years, sung by the beautiful voices of people I love and miss. Their voices really are beautiful, and this time I’m not biased!

It always makes me a bit sad to just be a member of the audience—instead of singing with them for the mini-concert before the mass—and realize that there are songs I don’t know anymore. But I’m just too happy to be surrounded by this music, to really dwell on what I’m missing. And when I do get to add my voice to theirs for the mass, it’s the happiest feeling. It’s Christmas, and I’m home!

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European Grand Prix for Choral Singing

After our Sunday morning stroll in (mostly deserted) Maribor, Mimi, Pete, Marlon and I ran into the Glee Club right outside Union Hall, where they were due for their soundcheck.
After hugs were exchanged and manic shrieks faded away, we went into the holding room with them for last-minute instructions from Ma’am Malou, prayers and a huddle. I really have to give it to Ma’am, she was the picture of calm and purpose—exactly what a big group needed at a time like this.

It felt so strange to know what they were all feeling, but not actually be part of it—to be outside the circle looking in.

Then it was time for their 15-minute rehearsal, the only time choirs actually get to step inside the hall they compete in. Since the full repertoire is 25 minutes, the soundcheck was just about enough time to check the acoustics against a portion of each piece, and also if everyone can hear each other. I’ve been in halls where the audience enjoys a fantastic sound but you can’t hear yourself at all, let alone the people next to you, and it’s always a freaky feeling.

To me, they sounded amazing. Sparkling, fresh, warm, pino, with heart. And it’s not just because I used to sing in this choir, okay. I think I’ve heard enough choirs to know.

Lunch followed at a park nearby. We got a chance to catch up with darling Leo, who was also with the Glee Club when we competed in the European Grand Prix in 2001. I can’t believe he now has two Grand Prix competitions under his belt.

Then, back to Union Hall to claim our tickets and wait for the competition to begin. The event had been sold out for weeks. Slovenes love their choral music!

We got the nosebleed seats in the very last row, but asked to be moved. In hindsight, we should have just stayed here so we could see what the judges were writing down!

The organizers very kindly moved us to the upper left of the hall, where we unfurled our handy-dandy Philippine flag and got ready to cheer for our Glee Club. Can you say groupies?

Then the competition began.

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Number one fan

Everyone needs a number one fan.

The Ateneo College Glee Club already had its own when I joined it as a freshman in 1999. His name was Dr. Fernando Hofileña, M.D. To us, and the generations of Glee Club members who knew him, he was simply Doc Hof.

Doc was a tenor in the Glee Club during the 1950s, when it was still an all-male choir. He stayed on to become its tireless cheerleader, mentor, guide, morale booster and its number one fan.

You couldn’t be in the Glee Club and not know him. Your identity as a card-carrying member of the Glee Club was not valid until you had seen him strolling in his stately pace with his trusty umbrella along Katipunan; until you’d been stopped by him in the hall and held by the arm for a long chat (often, just as you were dashing to class or to rehearsal); until you had heard him speak in superlatives of the group you belonged to.

Everyone has their favorite Doc Hof story. Mine is the time when, after a particularly disastrous rehearsal, our conductor launched into a cutting sermon that left our confidence in shreds (as conductors will often do).

At the end of Sir Joel’s tirade, Doc walked into the rehearsal room beaming, bringing his hands together in slow, emphatic applause. “Incandescent!” he declared beatifically.

Well, nobody could stay angry or tired after that.

My other favorite Doc Hof story is how he, as an octogenarian, was hit by a truck while walking home in Loyola Heights. We were all horrified when we heard. Oh, no, not to worry—he was okay, he said. He simply got up, dusted himself off and walked home. After getting hit by a truck. True story.

Doc Hof’s unconditional love and support was constant even in the toughest times—when we sounded anything but incandescent. I was president during a difficult time in the Glee Club: we changed conductors twice in one year; we were on our own after a dramatic break from our alumni members; the makeup of the group shifted suddenly towards young, inexperienced singers. After our hard-earned triumphs in Europe, listeners expected a seasoned, winning sound that the “new” Glee Club simply didn’t have and couldn’t rush no matter how bad we wanted to.

During that transitional period, I heard many things from many people—but not a single thing from Doc. Making difficult decisions for the group was nerve-wracking and we officers could never be sure we were doing the right thing. In those times, Doc Hof’s quiet kindness was a gift. His constant presence was reassuring. His unshakeable faith in us, that we would endure and flourish, was a soothing balm. He simply knew that we would make it, even if I wasn’t sure we would.

Doc was so in love with the Glee Club, it was all he ever talked to us about. He never said much about himself. We were all stunned to learn about his achievements when he was awarded the Lux-In-Domino Award by Ateneo in 2008.

Here was a man who, when World War II broke out, stopped med school to return to his province of Negros to help his father, then the Mayor of the town of Silay. After fleeing with his family and townspeople to the mountains, he joined the Resistance against the Japanese and became acting Mayor at the age of 22.

After the war, he became a Fulbright scholar and studied pediatrics and child psychiatry in New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. He came home to become the pediatrician and clinic head for the very first school for special education in the Philippines—now the Cupertino Center for Special Children in Loyola Grand Villas. I could go on and on, but you can read more about Doc’s remarkable life here.

He loved music, theater, debate. If you had ever talked to him, you would realize how much he exemplified a bygone era—one where people were kinder, greater, more genteel, more noble. Now that Doc is gone, I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone whom I could accurately describe as genteel or noble. Now I feel like his era has passed with his passing.

Everyone needs a number one fan. That a man as accomplished and remarkable as Doc Hof could be humble enough to be ours—so unabashedly, so unconditionally—was a gift beyond our deserving.

Doc was laid to his eternal rest today. Though it was always an honor and a pleasure to sing for him, I believe that we were only the opening act to what awaits him. I can only imagine what beautiful music must have been prepared to welcome him. I can only imagine his face when he hears it.

Dear Doc, rest well and enjoy the music. We love you and we will miss you.

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Paris, 10 years later

Do you remember?
Do you remember waking up to days, weeks, months where all you had to think about was what you loved to do most, in the company of the people you most loved to do it with?

Do you remember sound checks and rehearsals…

Churches upon churches…

More masses than you’d ever attended in a single day?

Do you remember passing the hat for money? And being so thankful for every deutschmark, franc, guilder, peseta, tolar, lira, and much later, euro, that our voices earned for us?

Do you remember the bread broken with strangers who made the meals and cared for us, so that after those meals they were strangers no more?

Do you remember taking too long to load the bus with suitcases that got heavier at each stop…

… and laughing at the most ridiculous things that only we could find funny, together?

Do you remember the applause and the cheers, how they made your heart feel all warm inside no matter how tired you were… and smile so hard you thought your face might split apart?

Do you remember singing our joys, sorrows, triumphs, exhaustion, even our goodbyes?

Do you remember what it was like to win?

And what it was like when we had to start all over again?

That was when I wish someone had told me that in spite of everything I feared, what I loved would continue, grow and flourish.

And though the songs may be new ones…

The faces may have changed…

And although now we can only be on the outside looking in…

It looks and feels as sweet as I remember. And I know they’ll always remember it this way, too.

Wiping my eyes after the Glee Club sang for the morning service at the American Church in Paris, I asked Gutsy: “Why did we have to grow up?”

I’m not sure, but I think maybe we leave some things behind to make room, to clear space for new and different things…

… things that make new selves of us, and that assure us every day that becoming an adult is worth it.

And while we leave some things behind, some things, like laughter, music and friendship…

 
…are simply forever. 
“We’ll always have Paris,” goes the famous line from Casablanca. But I think we’ll always have much more than Paris. And for that I will always be grateful. 
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