Mom was quite insistent. “Manny! Marcel! Fred! Come out here! You have to practice!” Sheepishly, we filed into the living room, dreading this moment—and the moment yet to come. Our oldest brother, Robert, was already sitting at the piano, having had to learn the tune we were now supposed to sing.
“The program is this Saturday,” Dad reminded us, as Mom placed us all in line in front of the piano, oldest to youngest, like a less-toothy, more-tanned version of the Osmonds. The goal was simple—We were to perform for the local Filipino Community’s annual Christmas program. Our song: “The Little Drummer Boy.”
The entire act was, of course, carefully masterminded and choreographed by our parents. Dressed in matching cardigan sweaters, Robert would play the piano, while the rest of us sang. Our baby brother, Marcel, had the most important job, which was primarily to look cute, and to ding a little bell at the end of every phrase.
“Come they told me, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum,” we would all warble, and Marcel would respond by tapping the bell in time, “Ding! Ding!”
Honestly, the only thing I had in mind was what we were getting for Christmas. I glanced longingly at our blinking artificial tree, now swollen with presents. I was sure that I had been a good boy this year. Perhaps a cowboy six-shooter, a Battleship board game, Lincoln Logs, a model airplane. It was easy to figure out which gifts were clothes and which were toys. It was just a matter of being able to peel back the cellophane tape without ripping the wrapping—something we were all black belt experts at.
“No, louder,” Mom would encourage. “Fred, stand straight. Marcel, smile!”
You could almost hear our eyes rolling.
So we did it again. And again. And again. I was determined to be a good boy, all the way to the end. After all, it was my role in the family. And I wanted to ensure a permanent place on the Nice List. So I sang, loud and proud, so that even Santa sitting in his North Pole workshop would hear me. “So to honor Him, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum, me and my drum!” Ding! Ding!
The night of the program was filled with excitement, I remember. The Community Hall was decked in reds and greens, with girls in colorful dresses and boys in dress shirts and scratchy pants. Mom had her raven-black hair pulled up in a beehive, and Dad had one of his best suits on. Santa was rumored to arrive later that evening, bringing all sorts of gifts to all the children. Dinner was a culinary mix of Filipino staples, like pancit (a noodle dish), lechon (roast pork), and lumpia (like Chinese egg rolls, only a gazillion times better), as well as standard Christmas goodies like candy canes and sugar cookies. Hyped up on sugar, we were all dressed in our Christmas best, with our matching sweaters over scratchy white shirts and clip-on ties, and our hair slicked back with a small dollop of banana pomade.
Soon it was time for the program. A dozen or so child acts fidgeted nervously for their cues. I assumed that this was some sort of ancient Asian tradition, passed down from one reluctant and embarrassed generation to another for centuries. I could almost picture some tired Nanay in a beehive hairdo yelling to her son from her nipa bamboo hut, “Sing louder! And ding your bell!”
Suddenly, it was our turn. The Master of Ceremonies announced us, and my three brothers and I shuffled our way up the stage to the beat-up mahogany upright. I gulped purposefully and took a deep breath. And Robert began the low quarter-note octaves that introduced the carol.
“Come they told me, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum,” we sang. Ding! Ding!
Except that “we” weren’t singing. My three brothers had suddenly become as silent as a broken dog whistle.
“A new born king to see, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum,” I crooned. Ding! Ding!
Their singing had now become a barely audible murmur, like Charlie Brown’s teacher whispering faintly in another room.
“I have no gift to bring, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum,” I continued confused. Ding! Ding!
And suddenly, starkly, sinkingly—it became obvious. Our quartet had become a solo.
“To lay before the King, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum! Rum-pa-pum-pum! Rum-pa-pum-pum,” I sang with all my might. Ding! Ding!
The “Pa-rum-pummings” had begun to sound like the drum sting at the end of a bad vaudeville joke: “Take my wife, please! Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum!” But I couldn’t back down now. After all: The. Show. Must. Go. On.
Thankfully, it was soon over, and I quickly began the process of turning that moment into a scarring childhood memory. But I also remember a white-bearded Filipino Santa delivering presents to all the boys and girls. I remember getting a soap-on-a-rope toiletry set, which at the time, I thought was both dumb and cool. And I remember Mom and Dad being proud of us for what we did. And at the end of the day, there was nothing left to do but slip on my jammies, climb into bed, and wait for Christmas morning.
Did this really happen to me? No. But this is exactly the way I remember it.
[Lower Photo: My family, circa 1966, immediately after the Christmas program. I’m the cute one in the green sweater.]