The joys of Christmas and New Year in the Philippines

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Street Talk

By GREG B. MACABENTA

If you are thinking of retirement and are wondering where to spend the remaining years of your life, try spending Christmas and New Year in the Philippines. That should help you make up your mind.

After 32 years, my wife and I spent Christmas in Manila, and as I write this, we are looking forward to greeting the New Year in Iloilo City.

We have a large clan and every Dec. 24 was when the entire brood — brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces and grandkids — would gather at our home in Parañaque. Christmas Day was an elder brother’s turn to host the family reunion at his home in Quezon City. New Year would be greeted at a sister’s house in Sampaloc. And another elder brother in Quezon City would host the commemoration of the Feast of the Three Kings to complete the annual round of family gatherings.

But then, in 1986, we sent our four children to study in the US and my wife had to join them to take care of them. I could not pull up my roots from Manila because of my job with an ad agency. However, it became mandatory for me to spend Christmas and New Year with them.

We spent our first Christmas away from the Philippines in Cambridge, a small town on Maryland’s eastern shore. The plaintive lyrics “Oh, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie,” must have been written with Cambridge in mind. My family and I were huddled in a snow-bound chalet, wondering if we could survive the cold or burn down the house with the flames dancing in the fireplace.

Mercifully, an elder sister living nearby offered the warmth of her family and the joys of her festive table. But we sorely missed the loud laughter of soused relatives, the shrieks of children, and the cacophony of young carolers wailing their version of “Jingle Bells,” “Singko lang po, singko lang po, singko lang po ang ibigay niyo… ayos na ang buto-buto.”

If Christmas was rather laid back, our first New Year’s Eve in America might well have inspired the lyrics, “Silent night, holy night…” There were no fireworks, no empty cans being dragged by cars across neighborhood streets, no noise-makers wielded by noisier revelers and, worst of all, no children around to shout the old year out. They were all partying with friends.

As my wife and I sat in front of the TV, watching the ball in New York’s Times Square plunge down, we asked ourselves what we were doing in a strange land away from family and friends on the most festive night of the year.

I eventually had to give up my ad agency job to join my wife and kids in the US and we relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area. That move mitigated the absence of relatives during the Christmas season, as new friends filled our lives.

California accounts for half of the over 4 million Filipinos in America, so one won’t miss the Tagalog chatter wherever you turn, and the Pinoy supermarkets, like the Seafood City chain, provide a balm for homesickness, somewhat.

Over the years, as my family grew and as we got used to the way things are done in the US, we learned to enjoy Christmas and the New Year the way Americans do — in fact, it came to a point where we no longer missed Pasko and Bagong Taon in the Philippines.

But this year found my wife and I joining some of our children and grandchildren for Christmas in Manila and for the first time in 32 years, we hosted the traditional clan reunion at our home in Parañaque.

We also found ourselves flying to Iloilo City at the invitation of the siblings of a daughter-in-law, which is why we will greet the New Year in Ilonggo country.

We look forward to a great time in Iloilo. Our hosts are excellent singers who have the Ilonggo talent for hospitality. For the past three days, we have been gorging ourselves on oysters and assorted seafood — and the cost has not been much more than a nice meal in the US. But our Iloilo meals have been much, much more than nice. The meals have been overwhelmingly delicious. And that’s not even counting the lechon de leche on New Year’s Eve!

My brothers and sisters who used to host the annual Christmas and New Year reunions in their homes in Manila have all passed on, but their absence was more than made up for by their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who crowded into our home in Parañaque and on Christmas Day in Quezon City. The loud laughter of beer-drenched nephews, the shrieks of children tugging at our hands to kiss them, the struggle for the karaoke microphone as old standards and holiday songs were mutilated by lovably out-of-tune singers — and the food, THE FOOD, and the drinks, THE DRINKS that never seemed to run out, and the warmth and the love that filled the air — these were the things we lost in 32 years overseas, and which we, eventually, got used to being without.

Now, we will begin to miss all of that again.

At a few months short of 80 years old, my wife and I are seriously considering spending the remaining years of our lives in the Philippines. Of course, our children and grandchildren will continue to keep us attached to America. Besides, the US has been good to all of us. But the lure of the Motherland is too strong to resist.

This lure is especially strong for those who face the prospect of being consigned to an old folks’ home or being trapped on a couch, with only a TV set for company because one’s driver’s license can’t be renewed and the rest of the household are at work or in school.

Without a doubt, the Philippines is unmatched as a place to spend your final years in.

Senior citizens are spoiled to the point of embarrassment (everyone offers to help you up a flight of stairs or across a ditch). You enjoy a 20% discount at restaurants when you flash your senior citizen card. Your meager US social security pension can cover the cost of a driver, a nurse, and even a personal alalay. And the pretty young ladies (of which the Philippines has a surplus) still like to flash their flirtatious smiles at you (while calling you Lolo or Tatang).

Indeed, for those like us who wonder whether we should call the Philippines home once again, there’s nothing like being a senior citizen. And if you really want to conclude your sojourn on this earth with a smile, try spending Pasko and Bagong Taon in the land of your birth.

A few years ago, during the tenure of Imelda Nicolas as chairman of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, I was asked to write a piece on behalf of overseas Pinoys answering the call of the Motherland. The last lines of that piece still echo in my mind:

“And in the winter of our lives, when mournful bells will ring,
The Philippines will always be our summer and our spring.”

gregmacabenta@hotmail.com

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