by Anna Maria Cos Alcantara
Christmas time in the Philippines is a time like no other. The festivities start around October when department stores start playing Christmas carols, and Jose Mari Chan has once again entered our playlists. Invites come in left and right for reunions with your high school friends, Kris Kringle in the office, and dates are set for the annual Christmas family reunion.
For a lot of people, Christmas is truly the most wonderful time of the year. It’s a time for seeing people we haven’t seen all year, and it’s a time to spend a little extra on gifts just to remind people that you’re thinking of them during the Yuletide season.
Different families have different traditions. My family is no exception. We start of Christmas week by celebrating it with our extended family. Every year, my parents host the annual family reunion for both sides – hitting two birds with one stone. It wasn’t until recently that I realized how much thought and effort goes into planning a celebration at that scale, after finding it close to impossible to set a date for my high school barkada’s annual Christmas dinner, now that we’re all working.
Our annual family reunion is pretty much your typical Filipino family reunion – there’s a lot of food, little kids performing in exchange for a little prize, and a raffle where a lucky family member gets to win some sort of appliance. After the program, usually follows a couple of rounds of drinks and beers while everyone catches up on a year’s worth of milestones and memories.
On Christmas Eve, we usually find ourselves at least an hour and a half early to the mass at the Gesu, where we purposely do this so that we can have the best seats – or any pew for that matter that has fan that hits the row perfectly. For many years now we’ve welcomed Christmas with the Jesuits, and it wasn’t until I got a little bit older and wiser that I understood why many were captivated with Jesuit homilies. Even if they got a little bit lengthy, they were always socially relevant without getting too political, and they were always delivered in a way that was easy to digest without being intimidating.
After mass, we always find ourselves feasting on every dish that we prepared the entire day. The menu differs every year, but ever since my sister-in-law became a part of the family, there’s always her famous mashed potatoes that up to this day, I look forward to. For as long as I can remember, that’s how I know it’s truly Christmas time because I always find myself eating the mashed potatoes well up to the days leading up to the New Year.
While my parents always gave gifts throughout the year, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago when gift giving on Christmas Eve became part of the tradition. It wasn’t until my eldest brother had kids when we started to introduce this part of the festivities for them to really feel like Christmas is a special day. Funny enough, one of my brothers took it upon himself to spice up this gift giving tradition by introducing a concept called “person of the year” – where a selected family member gets a lavish gift, while everyone else, simply gets a gift. For a couple of years I’ve waited until I became person of the year, and it was all worth it when my brother gave me a nice watch to make up for giving me an iPhone box without the actual phone the previous year.
And just in case you’re wondering, no, we do not wait until midnight to open gifts and eat the food – simply because we get too excited to eat and give our gifts.
On Christmas Day, we usually spend the day resting at home. It’s weird and kind of anti-climactic – I mean we’ve spent a lot of time celebrating the occasion with different people but what do you actually do on the day itself? Sometimes we find ourselves visiting my grandmother, sometimes we make about 50 sandwiches and give them out to street children, and sometimes we just have a meal outside.
This is the kind of Christmas that I grew up with. Nothing too extravagant, nothing too over the top that we forget what the season is all about. It’s always a time to spend with those who you consider to be family, and always about giving, and giving back.