When I hear the word “home,” something curious happens: a mishmash patchwork of familiar images from my childhood blossoms in my mind.
I first think of London, that grand bustling metropolis with its red double- decker buses, black taxis, and its grey drizzle. I think of the Embankment cityscape with Big Ben, the Gherkin, the twinkling Millennium Bridge, and the London eye silhouetted against the cloud-streaked skies.
Then, like a scene change in a movie, my mental image of London dissolves into a vibrant, sun-soaked vision of the archipelagic Philippines, emblemised by verdant rice terraces, glorious beaches, endless shopping malls touting the latest must have craze, colourful jeepneys, and of course, ubiquitous kamikaze taxis that fight for supremacy in the crawling city traffic.
However, this image fades too, and is replaced by a bright vision of my family, smiling and waving from all over the world, taking centre stage in my imagination.
As I was born in England to Filipino parents, my Christmases have invariably alternated between London and Manila. And since my first memorable flight to Manila in December as a little girl, returning there for Christmas remains a thrilling adventure that fills me with jittery excitement, promising humidity, new experiences, guaranteed sun, tropical fruits, yummy food, and of course, family.
The adventure begins with our arrival at the hustle and bustle of Heathrow airport, where our check-in desk is typically identifiable by the tell-tale line of noisy, cheerful, chattering Filipino expats and OFWs, always with at least three families hastily repacking their overflowing bags last-minute.
Our own suitcases are usually chock-a-block with quaintly British bilin for friends and family back home: tins of Heinz baked beans, salt and vinegar crisps, Stilton cheese from Marks & Spencer, bars of Cadbury’s chocolate, endless jars of Marmite – definitely an acquired taste! My mother’s ability to wrangle Stilton cheese through airport security is a truly underrated skill.
CHRISTMAS IN MANILA
When our plane reaches Philippine soil, after what feels like dozens of hours later, I know we’ve arrived because of the heat, the constant sounds of a car horn, and the aroma of warm, freshly baked pandesal: that’s what Manila smells like to me.
I’ve often tried explaining to my friends what the Philippines is like, but its culture, its atmosphere, its vitality is difficult to explain in words. There’s no spirit like the upbeat, positive bonhomie of the Filipino spirit. It’s something you have to experience for yourself.
Christmas in Manila to me heralds endless socialising, endless food! The warm humidity on the day feels slightly surreal – I am so used to the cold, the rain, the frostiness of British weather.
A typical Christmas day involves having dinner at my tita’s house in Sampaloc. The house is bedecked in dazzling festive lights and tartan throws, and Christmas carols croon softly in the dining room.
We yearn for our Filipino roots on the most festive day of the year. Our paról, a traditional star-shaped Christmas lantern, hangs proudly in the living room window. When I see the paról flashing colourfully from outside, nobly distinguished from the typical Santa Clauses and reindeers decorating the houses of our neighbours, I feel a thrill of pride. The paról reminds me of just how privileged we are to belong to such a rich, vivid, and exquisitely unique culture.
HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS
Whether I spend Christmas in London or Manila, they equally feel like “home.” If I try to think of my home as a physical place, it’s difficult to pinpoint any one object or country or experience, because it’s about the feeling of the word.
Following the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, we found that spending Christmas in Manila left us humbled and inspired. Extravagant decorations were stripped back out of respect for Haiyan’s victims, and the materialistic ideals of the holiday were restored to its true spiritual values: family and gratitude.
Hundreds of thousands of families had the houses they lived in and their prized possessions destroyed, and yet remained so thankful, so happy for having their loved ones safely around them. If I had to pick one word to represent the Filipino spirit, it would be “resilience”.
I’ve thus come to realise that home, in actuality, is not a tangible place, but more of a fluid, abstract concept built on family and love. They say home is where the heart is, and indeed, it’s the truth. So that is why, when my loved ones come together for Christmas to reconnect, it doesn’t matter whether we’re in London, Manila, or Timbuktu, because when I’m with them – I’m home.
About the author
Melissa Legarda Alcantara is a British-Filipino who grew up in London but spend her Christmas holidays between Philippines and the UK. She is the editor of film magazine SineScreen (www.wpff.ph) and co-founder of bake* creative, a creative consultancy and marketing bureau.