Since turning 18, the wanderlust in me often wondered what it would be like to spend Christmas away from everyone. And two Christmases ago, I made that dreadful mistake.
The first one wasn’t exactly my choice—it was my first few months of working overseas. And I was a writer hungry for adventure: I needed to experience for myself how our fellow Filipinos abroad, sans their loved ones, celebrate the most wonderful time of the year.
A Clandestine Karaoke Christmas
Saudi Arabia being a Muslim country, Christmas for them wasn’t exactly something to look forward to. So we were working the whole of Christmas Eve, waiting madly for the hours to pass. There was even a penalty if you happened to be sick that day, figure that. But the moment the time struck six, we started packing our stuff for the secret party ahead.
Truth is, you can’t rave much about the so-called secret party. Over self-invented thus health-risky bottles of wine and beer, you meet the same people you work with save for a few new faces, trade recycled stories (bowling tips, tennis tricks, chicken-egg jokes), and sing a tune at the karaoke—if those who hog the microphone just had to take a leak.
But for lack of options, it was a whole new dimension of Christmas that definitely brought the Filipino community closer. But bummer, tomorrow is another working day.
Of Choice and Circumstance
In my young mind then, it struck me as odd how the old-timers there could stand so many Christmases away from the fun and excitement of the traditional Filipino Christmas experience. Hazarding an inquiry, most of them told me it’s just a matter of getting used to.
“Survival under these circumstances involves changing one’s ways”, one of them said, “if not creating them.”
But what about choice? They said they asked the same question the very first Saudi Christmas they had a long, long time ago. And never looked back since.
I decided to look ahead.
A Swinging Christmas With Friends
With a few others, I managed to find work elsewhere, sparing ourselves another Christmas fearing that the muthawas (those local religious police) might just arrest us for the clandestine party.
This time, it was sheer curiosity that I decided not to come home for the holidays, and to stay in Singapore instead. This was also the coming of the new millennium, so the air was rife with excitement—there was going to be fireworks display and street party downtown. Cool, my friends and I thought, so we headed to where the action is.
Short of exhilarating, we were truly having fun along with the huge party crowd ahead of us. It wasn’t bad at all—we were all there, partying seemingly non-stop. Until the music stopped playing and the night started dying young.
And that’s when the realization that you’re not home kicks in. For tomorrow is another working day.
Style And Substance
“It’s like a roller-coaster on a short trip”, one visiting French I spoke to declared, “When the Millennium Swing (the party’s code name) has stopped, things can get very superficial in Singapore.”
Times though are changing for this small, successful island-nation in so many ways. Every major department store changes its facade with an inspired interpretation of the holiday season, sales are everywhere and people seem to be smiling more. Hopefully, it won’t be doomed to spend Christmas with only the same commercial vibe around it, and not much else.
Still nothing quite matches the simplest of holiday greetings the moment the whole family wakes up to the sound and aroma of Mum’s good ol’ Christmas breakfast (no matter what it is), to the spirit of light and endearment lingering in the air as folks and neighbors say hi to one another (forget that it’s not exactly a good year), and to the whole grand Christmas-ness weeks before and after the day Jesus touched our lives.
It’s a rich heritage that is so uniquely ours; we can’t just let it die—the off-key carols, simbang gabi (and banig to some), puto bumbong, bibingka, and the whole enchantment of not one day but the whole Christmas season that joins the whole nation in festive spirit.
And a prayer that next year will bring us better times.
No digital age or bad times should change any of that, excesses excluded. Make no mistake: There is nothing like coming home for Christmas.