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Reclaiming Guam's lost Christmases

File photo courtesy of Department of Defense

By Ron Rocky Coloma

The Mañenggon Memorial Foundation is preparing to host the 2023 Christmases Not Forgotten event, a tribute to World War II survivors on Guam.

Scheduled for Dec. 3 at the RIHGA Royal Laguna Guam Resort, the gathering is described as "a symbolic reclamation" of the four Christmases lost between 1941 and 1944 during the Japanese occupation, a time when the joy of the season was overshadowed by the hardships of war.

The heart of the event is the survivors themselves, who often take over the program with impromptu singing and sharing of stories. Their resilience and spirit transform the event into a vibrant celebration of life and community, transcending the usual formalities.

Stephanie Flores, the president of the Mañenggon Memorial Foundation, said during the Japanese occupation, the local population couldn't celebrate Christmas. This loss was felt deeply by war survivors, who longed for a chance to reclaim those missed celebrations.

The annual event was launched in 2017 to reclaim those "lost" Christmases.

The event includes music and dancing. The presence of military partners and local dignitaries will add to the event's significance, bridging past and present.

"Christmases Not Forgotten came from the idea that during the war, our people on Guam could not celebrate Christmas," Flores said. "As we were doing all these memorials year after year, it's always a very, very solemn event. We were remembering what happened during the war and liberation."

Each member of the foundation, Flores explained, has a direct connection to a WWII survivor. Their stories are threads in Guam's rich historical tapestry – from surviving forced labor at airfields to secret acts of resistance like smuggling batteries for radios.

War survivors will receive gift boxes containing items like Hershey's chocolates, toothpaste and combs – reminiscent of the Red Cross packages distributed during the liberation period.

During the previous years' gathering, Flores said the gift boxes brought joy to the survivors: "They were just blown away. They were just so happy by it. You look at them and to us today we're thinking, 'Oh, my gosh! Why are these people happy about a little black comb?' But to them, it means so much more," she said.

"We make sure that Santa has gifts for everybody. They're small gifts, but they're meaningful. And when Santa Claus was passing those things out, they were just blown away. They were just so happy by it," Flores said.

The celebration transcends typical festive gatherings, becoming a platform for survivors to take center stage. Willy Flores, chairman of the Mañenggon Memorial Foundation, fondly recalled, "The minute we get the old folks involved, it just all falls apart. They just do whatever they want. And we love it. It's so cool."

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