I am watching a Christmas light show. The Makati district of Manila has troubled itself to string up a bunch of LEDs in an Ayala plaza. After dark at every half-hour music comes on and the lights dance and blink in time to Christmas standards. It’s a major hit. The place is full of people. On a muggy weeknight like tonight, weeks before Christmas, there’s a new crowd for every showing. On weekends the plaza is so packed that it’s impossible to move.
Back home I have friends who would sneer at this kind of thing. It’s too simple, too sincere, too kitsch. It would deserve an eye roll. It certainly wouldn’t be worth a hour-and-a-half commute by jeepney, FX, light rail, and a long, sticky walk.
There was a time I might have agreed with them. But here, now, I can’t. The the crowd oohs, ahhhs, and takes pictures. And I join them.
Christmas is different here in the Philippines. It’s not just the palm trees, balmy weather, and the fiction of ever seeing a white Christmas. Christmas means more here than it could ever mean back home in the U.S. There’s an old joke that Filipinos only celebrate Christmas in the “bear” months: Septem-bear, Octo-bear, Novem-bear, and Decem-bear. It’s cute until you pull into a Manila gas station in September and hear “Silent Night” blaring on the PA. Then you start to notice the wreaths going up in October and the trees being decorated before November and you realize that, on a scale of 1 to 10, Filipinos do Christmas at an “11.”
There are some obvious reasons why. There’s the fact that over 90% of Filipinos are Christian; that the Philippines has no speed bump holiday like Thanksgiving to slow Christmas momentum; that Christmas carols are a karaoke-anywhere-opportunity in a karaoke-loving culture; that gift-giving dovetails nicely with the concept of pasalubong. All these magnify the importance of Christmas.
There is, however, something else. Something more subtle that can’t see just by walking into a typical Filipino house. It starts with understanding how important family is here. That value is why my uncle dragged my cousins to Pangasinan to meet his brothers’ kids and to Binalbagan to see his 88 year-old mother this trip. It’s why every Filipino-American I know—whether first or second generation—sends money to relatives “back home” for school books, tuition, rent, or even just chocolates or Marlboro Reds. It’s why nepotism isn’t frowned on but is instead seen as just sharing one’s good fortune with the people you love. For Filipinos the concept is so deep that one’s own career, money making, kids, and success are never just ends in themselves or for self-glorification; all the accolades mean nothing if not done for and with one’s family. Being connected to one’s family and friends—sharing time, wisdom, success, happiness, failure, everything—is paramount.
Christmas, then, should be a happy time for Filipinos. It doesn’t get more family friendly than yuletide, presents under a tree, and big family dinners. But it isn’t just joy, and won’t be, probably ever. Christmas here has a deep melancholy that is missing Stateside. Despite Filipinos’ desire for connectedness, Filipinos families are forced apart. About 10 million of Philippine born Filipinos live overseas, which amounts to 10% of the population.  That basically means every family in the Philippines has a close relative who lives and works in a foreign land. More than half are Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) who live most of the year away out of the country. There’s the mother in Hong Kong who works as a nanny. The father on the merchant ship. The uncle or aunt who is one of the 1.5 million Filipinos working in Saudi Arabia. Every last one sends money back home to their families to build houses, buy kids clothes, and contribute over 13.5% to the countries GDP. No other country gets a greater portion of its wealth from its diaspora. All of it, though, comes at the cost of family connectedness.
Which brings us to Christmas. Filipinos feel the absence of loved ones most keenly during the holidays. All the gift giving, the get-togethers, and the food are reminders of who isn’t there, and there’s always someone missing.
Even if family is able to visit, everyone knows it’s only temporary. My cousin told me that whenever she comes home from the States her dad is overjoyed at the airport greeting area, but as they walk to the car she sees him tearing up.
“Dad!” she says. “Stop crying. I know you’re thinking about us leaving already, but we just got here! Be happy!”
But he can’t help it and neither can many other Filipinos; too many holiday greetings are the beginning of good-byes.
So for me, standing here, under the flashing lights in Makati, listening to Christmas music isn’t just taking in another show. Being here with my cousin, I’m reminded that this is more than just lights and songs. I’m reminded of families getting up Christmas morning to taked pictures in front of Christmas trees in Canada and the U.S. and texting them to their aunts and uncles in Bacolod or Manila who are preparing for bed. Of boxes from Qatar and the UAE arriving at doorsteps here in the Philippines bearing gifts for kids who can’t see their moms and dads. For all the nannies in Hong Kong who gather in the city square to eat, cry, laugh, and sing with each other because they can’t afford to go home because they send nearly all their paycheck home to send their kids to school.
The lights dance and sing. The crowd bustles and flashbulbs interrupt the darkness. Then an old favorite comes on. A song that’s a part of nearly every holiday presentation in the country. When I recognize it the lights blur before my eyes and the air gets heavier. As the music builds the audience grows still. It’s an instrumental version, but no one here needs a singer to remind them of the words. Ten million Filipinos could have written the lyrics themselves.
“Christmas eve will find me
where the lovelight gleams
I’ll be home for christmas
if only in my dreams”