On Distant Shore – Remembering a distant Christmas

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By Val G. Abelgas

For many overseas Filipinos who have been unable to visit the Philippines since the Covid-19 pandemic began early last year, the distinctive Filipino way of celebrating Christmas will just be memories of the past. Perhaps, even Filipinos back home would have to tone down their usual way of celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ this year because of the new dangers poised by the Covid-19 Omicron variant.

For many Filipinos who have been living outside of the Philippines for years, the holiday season is both a time for rejoicing and a time for remembering Christmas in a distant land and a distant time . Even as the Filipino in America begins to feel the holiday mood immediately after Thanksgiving when people start shopping for gifts and Christmas decors, he feels at the same time a longing for home. For nothing beats Christmas in the Philippines!

After living on a distant shore for more than 30 years, I can truly say that nothing beats the way Filipinos celebrate Christmas. The genuine joy that the season brings to millions of Filipinos in the Philippines is the same reason why the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos living abroad yearn for home at this time of the year.

For even just during those few days that Christmas is celebrated in the Philippines, many Filipinos feel they can share the blessings that the world brings. Because of the mandatory 13th month pay and the bonuses paid by nearly all companies, big and small alike, many people are able to afford what they can only dream about the rest of the year.

For many poor children, the Christmas season is only one of two instances when their parents can afford to buy them new sets of clothes and new pairs of shoes, the other being the school opening. Christmas is also the only time for many of these children to own a brand new toy, often as a gift from their parents or from their ninong or ninang.

The Christmas season is also their chance to earn some money to buy candies or toys. In my childhood growing up in Manila and later in Qiuezon City, as early as the first days of December, young boys and girls prepared their instruments for their traditional carolling, making drums out of empty cans covered by plastic, tambourine out of bottle caps, and even just a pair of sticks to provide percussion. At dusk, they formed into groups of three or four, and made their rounds starting on the night of Dec. 16 until Christmas eve. At the end of each night, the carolers counted their earnings and divided them equally among themselves.

I haven’t had the chance to spend Christmas in the Philippines since I left, so I’m not really sure if these carollers still make the rounds of the neighborhood at night.

While the kids looked forward to the advent of dusk during those nine days to earn some money, the teenagers awaited with anticipation the coming of dawn during that same period. For these teenagers, it was a chance to be with their crushes, girlfriends or boyfriends as they walked to the church in the biting cold. As early as three in the morning, from Dec. 16 to Dec. 24, they woke up and wore their best sweaters or jackets, had fun with their barkadas on the way to church, only to sleep while the mass was going on.

After the mass, they bounced back to life to join their friends again, feasted on bibingkas and puto bungbong on their way home, and hanged around a bit before being called home by their parents.

Towards midnight on Christmas Eve, parents and their children donned their Christmas clothes and trekked back to church for the Midnight Mass. The church becomes a venue for both solemn celebration of Christmas and a chance to mingle with friends again.

From the church, families retreated to their homes for the traditional noche buena, a minor preview of the grand celebration at lunchtime the next day. The noche buena often consisted of pan amerikano (bread loaf) or pan de sal, keso (queso de bola for those who can afford), hot dog, coffee or hot chocolate, etc. Noche buenas were usually only for the family.

But the grand Christmas celebration, usually at midday of Christmas Day, was for the entire clan. It was an occasion for children and grandchildren to gather together in the house of the patriarch or matriarch of the clan. Family members exchanged gifts, caught up on each other’s lives, and partook of the sumptuous meal. Children played games, the male family members drank beer or liquor, everybody participated in a singing session (using karaoke or otherwise), and the female members engaged in endless banter.

Towards the afternoon, children, accompanied by their parents, visited their ninong and ninang to get their Christmas presents. Others visited friends, watched movies, and drank with friends. The merrymaking went on till late at night. But the fun did not end there, because in six days, everybody geared up for a noisy New Year’s Eve revelry.

At least once a year, during the Christmas season, Filipinos are able to let off steam from the pressures of trying to survive, the poor are able to enjoy a bit of material happiness, families renew their bonds, and everyone has fun.

Christmas brings pure and genuine happiness to many Filipinos. It is this kind of joy that a Filipino living in a foreign land misses sorely about Christmas. It is this kind of Christmas celebration that Filipinos living on distant shores can only reminisce about.

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