An announcement blares from the invisible speakers just as I reach the station from work. It looks like I am going to stay out in the cold for another 20 minutes, waiting for the train going to the province of my in-laws. I am celebrating Christmas with my husband’s family. It is freezing, the wind is blowing and I can feel the biting cold in my bones. I lost my gloves a few hours ago and my coat is only good for autumn. I still haven’t learned how to dress for the cold. This is my first winter.
The gifts are lying near my feet: two paper bags and a book beautifully packed in gold wrapper with intricate laces. They are few compared to the number of presents I would have prepared had I been at home in the Philippines. Though they cost almost the same as the money I sent home to buy gifts for 20 relatives.
I wanted to buy that leather boots I saw in the boutique near my office. The pair is a gorgeous reddish-brown, knee-high and very warm. It is the perfect winter boots. They’ll keep my feet warm and protected especially when walking in ankle-deep snow. But the price tag would have covered the month’s rent, electricity, water and noche buena. I decided to be a good daughter and send most of my money to the Philippines. Family comes first before me, especially during occasions like Christmas.
The balikabayan boxmust be filled and no one should be forgotten. This is a responsibility that almost every Filipino migrant has to fulfill, that I happily oblige to.
The train station is quiet as always; the Dutch are patiently waiting for the trains. There are no long lines for tickets, no bulky traveling bags nor SM plastic bags, no conductors screaming the time of departure and most of all, no vendors selling mani, nilagang itlog, Dunkin Doughnuts, apples, oranges, overpriced mineral water or C2. Standing amidst these people, their faces showing no signs of any Holiday joy, it is very hard to tell that this is the day before Christmas. One hardly hears Christmas songs, unless it is played from the radio in your car. There are no Christmas-themed shows in the television.
The streets are not drowning with Christmas lights and there are no posters or banners saying “Maligayang Pasko at Manigong Bagong Taon mula kay Mayor, Konsehal, Senator, Barangay Captain Juan dela Cruz,” complete with the picture and website of the greeter. And there are no hordes of street kids raiding my apartment every night, shrilling Christmas carols and swearing at me when I don’t give them money.
There are no midnight sales and stores still close at 6 pm. No Divisoria or Greenhills to run to for last minute shopping. Christmas rush does not exist at all. There is heavy traffic though. But no stranger greeting you, “Merry Christmas!,” on the street.
The train finally comes. I heave a sigh of relief. My hands are very cold and I can’t feel my ears anymore. Two minutes later, it crawls through the rails, passed the tunnels of Rotterdam and out of the city. We pass acres of fields covered with pristine white snow, bald trees, pine trees and rows of windmills. It is four in the afternoon and it is already dark.
They turned on the streetlights, giving a soft distant glow to the steep roofs that typifies Dutch houses. You can see glimpses of snowmen and kids throwing snowballs at each other. It is a scenery straight from a Hallmark card, the fantasy of a White Christmas. I feel I should be thrilled by the landscape. After all, how many middle class Filipinos are given the chance to spend Christmas like this? Ironically, my heart is crying out to be home in the Philippines.
There is a Christmas tree in my in-law’s house,
the only indication of Christmas here. In my own flat, we have a real pine tree, giving off fresh and unfamiliar scent to the whole house. It is decorated with white and red Christmas balls, fancy lights and other trinkets. It is a beauty, very far from the coffee tree branches that me and my sister used to gather from our backyard and decorate with cotton balls and twisted colored papers to resemble a Christmas tree. I never had a real Christmas tree until I moved to the Netherlands. At this moment however, I am longing for the ones we used to have.
We are having take-out Chinese food for dinner. This was agreed upon two weeks ago when I offered to cook our Christmas dinner and they declined. It takes too much time to marinate the pork for adobo, whip eggs and mix it with milk for leche flan, prepare and slice the ham, cook the sauce for the sweet and spicy spaghetti and grilled chicken. Suffice to say, Noche Buena doesn’t exist in this household.
After dinner and a couple glasses of wine, I excuse myself and go to my room. I think of the conversation I had earlier with my mother, who happily told me that they were enjoying a simple Noche Buena with my relatives and that everyone had been given their gifts like I instructed. My mother has a new cellphone and her first call was overseas to me. “Merry Christmas anak. Ingat kayo palagi.” That’s her standard message, this time with a Christmas wish. I never realized until now that a simple message, like a Christmas greeting, could actually make me cry.
Tonight, for the first time, my phone is silent. There are no forwarded Christmas greetings from friends, officemates, and relatives.
Looking outside my window, the snow and the street lamp make a tranquil picturesque scene. Different memories of home run through my head: the noise that the carolers make, the mouth-watering and fattening Noche Buena my mother would usually prepare, my Dad and his drinking buddies coming over on Christmas day, my inaanaks (godchildren) queueing outside our door for their presents, the midnight masses that I attend if only for the festive atmosphere in the church and the laughter of family and friends. I am actually missing the chaos and traffic of Manila, the deafening firecrackers, the impatience of waiting in the pier of Lucena for the ferry going to Marinduque and the drunk, scary tambays (loiterers) outside my gate. Without them, Filipino Christmas is not the same.
I put the heater on a warmer setting, crawls under the blanket and close my eyes. I will be asleep after a while. And my dreams will be filled with images of celebrating Christmas at home, surrounded by the warmth and love of my friends and family.
This article was first published on the Philippine Star on December 2009.
– by Dheza Marie Aguilar