(First of two parts)
CHRISTMAS can be the most poignant time of the year for many Filipinos working and living abroad.
Banker-turned-microfinancier Joey Bermudez (standing) with his brood in Ontario, Canada.
While they have established themselves in their host countries, becoming successful professionals and gaining acceptance among their foreign peers, most admit that when the Yuletide season comes around, they can’t help but long for the Christmases past spent in the Philippines.
After all, the celebration here is probably the longest in the world, and maybe the most unique. As soon as September rolls in, Christmas carols start playing on the radio and in the malls. Sidewalks start teeming with puto bumbong and bibingka vendors, and their sweet smells just fill the nighttime air.
There will be endless parties and reunions in companies and among families by December 1, and by the 16th most homes will be brightly lit with their festive lanterns (parols) guiding the way of sleepyheads trying to complete the nine-day Simbang Gabi (dawn Masses), then culminating in the Misa de Aguinaldo on Christmas Eve and after, a massive Noche Buena feast.
The celebration officially ends by the first Sunday of January, the feast of the Three Kings. Only then will families take down their Christmas décor and start going to the gym to burn the fat accumulated from all the Yuletide feasting.
My old pal from San Miguel, Chec del Mundo, in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
While Filipinos abroad have created their own unique Pinoy Christmas in their new homelands, many of them agree, the Philippines is still the best place to celebrate the holidays. There’s just something magical in the air that lifts our spirits and moves us to give joy to others, in a warm and caring way most unique to our country.
Here, a few friends based overseas share their thoughts about what they miss most about celebrating Christmas in the Philippines:
JOEY BERMUDEZ (Oakville, Ontario, since 2009)
I MISS the Simbang Gabi and the puto bumbong after Mass. I miss the stream of fruitcakes, prune cakes, brownies, pies, cheese, chocolates and all sorts of delicacies that people give each other during the season. I miss the bright lights of Ayala Avenue and the illuminated fountains of Ayala Triangle. I miss our dry roads at Christmas time unlike the wet and snowy roads in Canada.
I miss the big party at home on Christmas Eve where my parents-in-Iaw, our househelp and some guests join us in a sumptuous feast. In Canada we have the usual Noche Buena and opening of Christmas gifts, but it’s just my family that gets together after the Christmas Eve Mass.
Lit. major, now tech solutions provider, Susan "Swannie" Morrow (right), with her husband Jesse Avraham and her late mother, Tessie Vasquez, in Brooklyn, New York.
I do not miss the intolerable traffic in almost all roads any time of the year, the inebriated drivers on the road going home from Christmas parties, the overcrowded shopping malls and Christmas bazaars, the long lines at the cash registers of stores, and the jacked-up price tags in restaurants and department stores.
There is no Christmas like Christmas in the Philippines. About that, there should be no argument.
CHEC DEL MUNDO (Brisbane, Australia, since 2004)
THERE are three things I miss the most about Christmas in Manila.
First is my family and friends and in knowing that you share the same sentiments and joy of the season. Second is the Christmas spirit that you feel as soon as September sets in. Everyone is on Christmas mode leading up to the day of festivities. People shopping in bazaars and in stores, traditional matriarchs shopping in Quiapo in the hunt for dried fruits for their homemade fruitcakes and Chinese ham, and some others making their vows to complete the nine days of Simbang Gabi. Third is the food. I miss most the puto bumbong that you team up with ginger tea, bibingka, queso de bola, and Chinese ham. Well, you can probably have them overseas, but there is so much that go into it that you can’t find here. For example, the smell of Christmas in the air, the traffic, the buzz.
Graphic designer Chet Vergara in Los Angeles since 1987.
SUSAN MORROW (New York since 1995)
CHRISTMAS to me is really not the glitter and gold but the simple joys of Christmas the way I knew it as a child growing up in Manila, like having puto bumbong in slightly burnt banana leaves complete with sugar, Star margarine, and coconut shavings; my grandmother’s hot pancit molo on Christmas Eve; and the excitement of waking at dawn with my mother to join her on her Simbang Gabi vigil. Then on Christmas Day itself, scrambling into my new dress to go to Church to hear Christmas Mass. After which, most unforgettable of all, is lining up in long queues to get my aguinaldo from my lolo and lola, titos and titas! P1 from each one of them!
A semblance of this kind of Christmas was still possible here in New York when my mother was alive and my siblings and our better halves gathered around her. She would spend all week cooking our favorite Filipino dishes—beef caldereta, embotido, pancit bihon, and my only contribution to the feast, mocha chiffon cake. She passed away in January 2011.
CHET VERGARA (Los Angeles since 1987)
OF course, there’s the FOOD. Nothing like puto bumbong straight out of the bumbong. Aling Mameng’s lengua, Estrella’s caramel cake, countless variations of lechon, morcon, pancit Malabon—shall I go on?
Journalist Jojo Dass in Dubai, UAE since 2008.
I miss the impulsive gift-giving and receiving gifts without judgment or suspicion. (OK, I will judge your gift but I really do appreciate it regardless!). Over here, I have stopped giving gifts at work after all the puzzled looks and outright indifference I got distributing gifts one year.
I guess the thing I miss most is the warmth. The genuine expression of caring and sharing the joy of the season no matter what emotional or financial situation one happens to be in. To feel the collective excitement that elicits smiles from family, friends and even strangers. The thought that life can be good, love can be found and everything will be alright.
JOJO DASS (Dubai since 2008)
I MISS the big family gatherings with the big buffet spread—a reunion of sorts with the people you rarely meet during the year, or almost don’t see anymore.
Of course, I miss Makati’s tinseltown, the dawn Mass at UST, puto bumbong and the carolings.
JAMES ONG (Singapore since 2007)
When we were younger, the most exciting part of Christmas was buying everyone gifts. A few days before the Eve, we’d be given a gifts allowance and we would join the mad crowds at Philcite or Harrison Plaza to look for cheap presents. After I moved to Quezon City as an adult and living with fellow bachelors, I counted on others to feed me. Inspired by Gilda Cordero Fernando’s “leftover party,” I would ask close friends (most of them single) to come to the house on the 25th and bring highlights of their Noche Buena.
Lifestyle editor James Perez Ong in Singapore since 2007. (Photo by www.style-anywhere.com)
One time I set up a 20-seater Italian-style dining table al fresco and guests were arriving hour after hour. It was a magical night, everything was makeshift, nothing fancy at all, but for me it captured the essence of Christmas: love, friendship and togetherness. Until now, friends ask me when I plan to do another leftover party. I can’t wait to host the next one. Most of these friends are now married with kids so it should be exciting.
(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This piece was published on Dec. 21, 2012. All photos provided by interviewees.)