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Tats Manahan: Giving the Gift of Education

Tats Manahan’s work in restoration and decoration manifests itself clearly in her house. Filled to the brim with an assortment of decorative objects and restored antiques, it is a perfect reflection of her aesthetic, which she describes in one word: more.“My grandfather used to collect a lot of things. There were Spanish cannons in front of his house. I don’t know where he got them. [Going to] his house in Tacloban was like an exploration. And then I married into a family with many things too, so I guess that’s what happened.”

But make no mistake, despite the plethora of objects that can be found in her abode, Manahan knows each of them by heart. She can tell you where she got each and what inspired the creators or what inspired her, if it is of her own making.

Decor decorum

Christmas, however, is her husband, Johnny Manahan’s turf. None of the season’s decorations go up without him. “Every year, he’s the one who calls the shots for the Christmas tree. He decides on the color scheme,” she shares.

The putting up of the Christmas tree is a ceremony in itself, with the entire family coming together over popcorn to help out. Johnny always takes the lead. “We’re the ones who basically just pass on the decorations from the floor. But now that the kids are big enough to suggest, it becomes a little more complicated,” Manahan says with a laugh.

In the Manahan household, Christmas is a time when you’re allowed to go over the top. “In fact, you have to go over the top. That’s the whole idea—more is more. Johnny always says it’s the time of the year when you are allowed to be very tacky but classy.” Manahan sources her decor everywhere—pop-up bazaars, department stores. She makes it a point to buy from all around town—that way her house doesn’t end up looking like a store showroom.

The Christmas table

The Christmas table is always a big production for Manahan—especially since she hand-painted and designed their dining table herself—and then repainted the ceiling when she realized it didn’t match. “It’s like eating in a flower patch,” she proudly says.

Manahan and her sisters were brought up in the kitchen by their mother, so she has developed a natural love and flair for cooking, which she passed down to her children. “That’s why our kitchen is very big, because the girls and I used to hang out there. We’d cook and do all kinds of things.”

The family doesn’t have any Christmas table staples. Instead, they have fun with the menu each year and figure out what they would like to have—especially since daughter Juana has turned out to be such a good cook. “She does a really nice turkey,” Manahan shares. “I cook most of the stuff, unless I order something, like a cake.” The one set of staples that they keep coming back to are ensaymada, Majestic ham, and hot chocolate, which they have any time during the Christmas season. Manahan fondly remembers how her lola’s tsokolate eh was thickened with ground nuts—a flavor that she had to cut out due to allergies in the family. Now they have nice cups of Belgian chocolate.

The gift of education

For many years, the Manahans haven’t really given any real presents during Christmas. Their friends already have everything they want, and Manahan wasn’t really keen on giving out another fruit cake or scented candle. “It didn’t mean anything to us anymore.”

When her children were small, she met Fr. Pierre Tritz, a French Jesuit priest who founded the Educational Research and Development Assistance (ERDA) Foundation to give impoverished children access to proper schooling.

If there’s anything Manahan strongly believes in, it’s giving her children the best education possible. And here she saw that she had the opportunity to do the same for others. In lieu of material gifts, she had cards printed and sent to friends, informing them that they had donated in their name for a child’s education. ERDA kept them updated on the output of the students. And when the kids reached high school, which was where the program ended, Manahan decided to send to kids to college.

Now that her grandson is in school, they’re starting to support children in the same way again, in addition to donating to their church ministry, which also funds education for underprivileged children. She gives these foundations a list of her friends in whose names she donates, never actually including her own.

“We don’t want them to know who we are. We don’t want to meet them, because we don’t want them to feel that they owe us something. I feel that it gives more meaning to us and to our friends who receive the cards because they actually get updates on the children.” Manahan has also started buying calendars from Gota de Leche, a non-profit, milk-feeding program. The organization holds special meaning for Manahan, as she was part of the team that restored the Gota de Leche Heritage Building, which was a recipient of the 2003 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Cultural Heritage Preservation. 

All this extends from Manahan’s own reflections and gratitude for how God has kept her family together. For her, this is the true meaning of Christmas.