Once again, Christmas day has come and passed–all too quickly, it seems. Christmas this year wasn’t all that different from the last: there was no mind-blowing revelation, no grand gesture. The roads were still traffic all over the Metro (even more so, in fact), we still found ourselves doing last-minute shopping on the 24th, and my mom was still way too busy wrapping enough gifts to fill a sleigh. We chalk up all these things to being signs of the times, though maybe the traffic, consumerism and stress aren’t the best things to associate with the season.
During our traditional Christmas eve mass, our priest, Fr. Danny Hwang, told us that it was his first Christmas back in the Philippines after years of being stationed in Rome. He spoke of the Filipino Christmas as being an experience of light, fullness and belonging (I sure do hope I remembered the three correctly!). His homily inspired me into making my own accounting, such as it is.
Christmas in the Philippines is a feast for the senses. From the sight of fairy lights all a-twinkle and star-shaped lanterns (parol) a-blaze in the night, to the sound of children caroling and friends laughing arm in arm; from the scent of heady bibingka (a traditional rice cake) and comforting hot chocolate, to the taste of sparkling peppermint and sweet yet savory hamon, to the feel of a hearty hug between pals and a solemn mano (gesture of bringing the other’s hand to one’s forehead as a sign of respect) from a child to her elder, the celebration of Christmas is shared by all. Workers from abroad or from Metro Manila flock back to their hometowns in order to spend this special season in the bosom of family. At night and in the wee hours of the morning, churches all over the country come alive in spirit and song as mass goers anticipate Christ’s birth in the nine-day Simbang Gabi (night mass), culminating in the Misa del Gallo on the eve of Christmas. Then, there’s the much-awaited Nochebuena, which is definitely a grand affair for Filipinos. Usually held in a clan’s main house, this midnight dinner ushers Christ into the world with a huge spread of food and drinks, to be followed by the opening of gifts. In our family, this can run to as late (or early, depending on how you look at it) as three or four in the morning.
I’ve never celebrated Christmas elsewhere, but I can’t imagine a more colorful and joyous season as one spent in my homeland. It wasn’t all fun and games for everyone, though. Just this month, Typhoon Pablo ravaged Mindanao, claiming the lives of more than a thousand people, with several hundreds still missing. And in the early hours of Christmas day, two separate fires broke out in Quezon City and in San Juan, leaving eight dead and 1,500 homeless.
In the wake of these tragedies, I’ve been reflecting about what Christmas really means to me. I’m reminded to think past the headaches and hassle of the traffic to the joy and warmth of being with friends and family–those whom I haven’t seen in ages, and those whose presence I sometimes take for granted. Reminded to be thankful for every little gift, but most especially grateful for the gift of being here, whole, alive and all accounted for. Reminded to see the twinkling fairy lights and blazing parol not just as beautiful trappings of the season, but as signs of hope for a better and brighter tomorrow.
It’s a cliche, yes. Cheesy? Definitely. But maybe Christmas is just the right time to be cheesy and sentimental–heaven knows we rarely give in to sentiment during most days of the year.
// Featured image c/o What’s New Philippines?