Growing up in the Philippines, much of my childhood holidays revolved around food, family and a lot of church time. Christmas festivities started in the “-ber” months in most parts of the country and there was no escaping glittery decorations and Jingle Bells on loop in public spaces. It was also common to hear groups of kids singing Christmas carols outside homes hoping for some change in return. Raised by my relatives while my parents worked in the U.S., I was never short on family members to celebrate with; phone calls with my parents and their occasional visits to Manila made do with keeping emotional connections intact.
My distinct memories during the holiday season include matriarchs in the family and a lot of helping hands preparing a lot of food for various get-togethers, receiving “crispy money” (i.e. newly printed bills) instead of presents, and having to attend Simbang Gabi, the devotional nine-day dawn mass celebrated usually at 4:30 a.m. The motivation that got me through these early morning church trips was getting to buy bibingka or rice cakes topped with coconut when we finished. Christmas Eve was celebrated by having a meal at midnight and New Year’s Eve was about endless fireworks going off all over the city and as always, more food to feast on.
When I moved to the U.S. and experienced a more muted version of Christmas, I found comfort and familiarity from spaces and communities with a large Filipino presence that would continue cultural traditions from our homeland. Over the years I’ve also become more enlightened to a lot of the colonial underpinnings of various holidays and I make peace with these by being clear on what drives me to participate in certain activities: cultivating family togetherness and traditions.
Leah's Dad (Adel) playing Santa at a family get together
After more than twenty years in the U.S. and becoming an aunt to fifteen nephews and nieces, it is nice to have experienced a different kind of family gatherings over the years, especially with my parents around most of the time. My dad created his own ritual of playing Santa during our large gatherings with relatives. He was a bellman for the Clift Hotel for 35 years and saved a lot of his tips during the year that would get meticulously folded up leading up to the party where he would then toss bills into the air for all to fight over, like children would for candies falling from a piñata. Three years after my Dad’s passing, my family still thinks fondly of these times with him. We hold him especially close this time of year as his birthday is December 16th and his day of passing December 23rd.
As a way of keeping family traditions alive, my family has been doing an all-Filipino
menu for our Christmas dinner. My siblings and I mostly make dishes we grew up eating. Food has a way of keeping memories and people alive while creating a special bond with those it is shared with in the present, which explains a lot why a lot of Filipinos, especially my family, have a real love for it and get excited about anything related to eating. Having a dance party with my mom, even for a bit, has also become part of the family gathering ritual, just like taking a lot of photos. No frills, all fun!
Wishing a blessed holiday season to all!