If there are any people in the world who celebrate Christmas excessively, Filipinos quickly come to mind. After all, the Christmas season in the Philippines starts on September 1st and lasts until January 9th! Christmas songs can be heard from every street corner, at the mall, and on every radio station. Decorations go up in every household and commercial space. Everyone goes shopping at full throttle. Bibingka (a type of rice cake) and puto bumbong (a type of rice cake cooked in a bamboo tube) are sold from street stalls, which permeate the air with the scent of burning coconut husks and coal. Colorful parols (Christmas lanterns) line the streets and houses. Lights come alive in the metro. Debate aside, we Filipinos know how to celebrate the holiday season.
So what does this mean for the Filipinos living away from the motherland? Those of us in the diaspora yearn for the festivity of our homeland, although many of us are caught up in the rat-race of trying to provide for our loved ones back home. We attempt to recreate the experience for ourselves in a foreign land, but it is never quite the same. It can make the holiday season emotionally difficult.
For me, there is something absolutely enchanting about the holiday season back home in the Philippines. Is it something in the air? Is it the strange appeal of our crazy traffic? Is it the excessive decorations that are both Western and traditionally Filipino? Is it the food (in my humble opinion, I think it’s the food), the people we surround ourselves with, or the drunken uncles singing ballads into a karaoke machine in the middle of the street? Is it waking up at the ass-crack of dawn to attend Simbang Gabi (a 4:00 am church mass held the twelve days before Christmas)? Tradition says that if you attend all twelve, your wish will come true. Personally, I have never completed one, so no wish has come to fruition.
From my perspective, I feel that it is a combination of all of the above.
I often catch myself reminiscing about past holidays back home, especially after I moved to the US in 2001. There was a certain excitement that came with waiting until midnight on Christmas Eve to open our presents. When I was younger, our house in Alabang was filled with my mother’s family, both biological and chosen. My Granny would have a full “American” feast that included three roasted and stuffed turkeys, cranberry sauce, casseroles, various pies, mashed potatoes, ham, and cheese boards.
My mother’s holiday meals were in an amazing league all their own. She started preparing at least 2 days before Christmas Eve. Each year could be different depending on her mood, but we always had the staples: my grandmother’s roasted chicken and potatoes, her spaghetti (that wasn't sweet like Filipino spaghetti tend to be) with gooey cheese sauce and garlic bread, and hot chocolate made with tablea (best paired with warm cheesy ensaymada *brioche bread* or bibingka). I can’t forget about the breakfast either: fried pineapple with brown sugar glazed ham, queso de bola (Edam cheese), and warm pan de sal with piping hot coffee.
We would go to our relatives’ houses to sing Christmas carols, then get treats or money afterward. When I was five or six years old, I was asked to sing a solo carol, but I ended up singing “Tonight I Celebrate My Love’ by Diana Ross. I know it’s not a Christmas carol, but it felt right at the time.
It was by nothing short of a miracle that my mother always made our holidays as extraordinary as she did. From what I recall, I was always sick during the Christmas season with pneumonia until I was about 10 years old. One year, we didn’t have any money to even put food on our table for Christmas. My mother--in her usual Superwoman fashion--sold homemade dumplings so that we would have some money. I remember that it was almost 2 am on Christmas Day and she was still fulfilling orders. That year, the day after Christmas, she took us out to eat, we watched a movie, and shopped for presents for my sister and me. As I’ve gotten older, I recognize that the magic never came from how many gifts we had; it came from us being together.
Honestly, I hated the very first holiday season after I migrated to Chicago. It wasn’t warm, like in the American movies I had seen. It felt transactional and cold. That was the year when all the magic vanished for me. It was the first year that I spent Christmas away from my mother and the family that I had grown up with. I was in a foreign land with a father that I didn’t have a close relationship with, and I regretted moving miles across the globe.
Our Christmas that year had been just my father, my stepmother, her son, and me. There was no laughing until our bellies ached. The house didn’t smell like apples, pine, and cinnamon. There was no rosemary-lemon-thyme roasted chicken, no Christmas ham, and no queso de bola. There were no pecan tarts, no roasted chestnuts, no special hot chocolate made with tablea, no fruit salad or polvoron (crumbly shortbread cookie)... Well, you get the picture. What we had that evening was arroz caldo (garlic-ginger rice porridge), adobo, and rice; it was just like any other day. We went to mass at 5 pm, had dinner by 6, opened presents by 8, and were sent off to bed. I cried myself to sleep that evening. What was so special about it? Not a damn thing. I yearned for my mother’s cooking, her hugs, and her magic.
In 2016, I was finally able to go back to the Philippines for the holidays. Despite being a jaded cynic, the magic still existed. My mother made sure that I was involved in every aspect of getting ready for the yuletide season. We decorated our tiny home with decor that has existed even before I was born, we wrapped gifts while reminiscing about our past holidays, we cooked our usual dishes to bring over to my stepfather’s family’s house, and we were able to just sit together, sipping some hot chocolate and watching a movie. That year, I remembered how much I love this season and how grateful I am to my mom for still working hard to make my holiday with her magical and amazing.
Before I relocated to Las Vegas, I had the pleasure of living with my siblings and their families in Chicago. It was the first time in seventeen years that all of us had been together for the holidays. Living under one roof with different personalities and family dynamics was not an easy task. In spite of the differences, we did our best to make it magical, just like our mother would do for us. My sister and I started a tradition of going on a drive around the neighborhoods to look at lights. When we went to Lincoln Park Zoo for Zoo Lights, we brought my brother and his family along. It was the first time they had experienced a midwestern winter. It was hilarious and (hella) cold. We walked around admiring the lights, taking photos, and enjoying cups of hot chocolate. In the days leading up to Christmas, we tried to wrap each other’s presents secretly in a small 2 bedroom apartment. We sang Christmas songs at the top of our lungs and cooked some of our favorite childhood dishes together. It was amazing to have that experience for my niece and nephews. It was a time full of laughter, silliness, and (most importantly) togetherness.
Despite the distance, my siblings and I try to continue the Christmas magic for the kids, just as our mother did for us. We recreate the feeling of being with family and fill their bellies with food made with lots of love. What we have or don’t have doesn’t matter, as long as we are together. With that in mind, I suppose that I can tuck away being the Grinch for now. This time of year is one of reflection: it is a time to be grateful for who we have in our lives, what we do have, and to honor those who have come before us. Although personally, I think being able to drink some hot chocolate and nosh on some warm gooey ensaymada while doing said reflection is absolutely necessary.