This year marked the fourth year I did not spend Christmas with my family, the third time I spent Christmas overseas, and the very first time I spent a whole Christmas day alone.
However, the following day, Christmas day, I was all by myself.
Perhaps it’s the same reason why, in the above verse in the first letter to the Thessalonians, it starts with “always” and ends with a period, like a command, instead of being added a conjunction “only when…”. Always be joyful. Come to think of it. To choose to be otherwise is actually a disobedience.
At the start of the month, I braced myself for the inevitable loneliness that, I was so sure, awaited me on the coming holidays. For one, I am in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the proverbial capital of an organized belief system that does not acknowledge Jesus Christ, whose birth is the reason for the season, as Lord and Savior. This place could well be the loneliest place to be on important holidays for Christians like me.
For two consecutive Decembers, I have been a witness to how Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in the Middle East do their best to recreate the trademark Filipino Christmas here. Filipino communities hold parties here and there ---showcasing on their buffet tables caldereta, kare-kare, leche flan and fruit salad, among other porkless Filipino Christmas dishes. Silly parlor games such as charades, Pinoy Henyo, Bring Me, Trip to Jerusalem, etc., are very well-enjoyed by both the young and the not-so-young, and you can bet the parties would be rated dull without them. Everyone concerns himself/ herself with what to get for monito-monita, the Filipino twist to the classic exchange gifts, and which element of mystery never fails to bring a thrill to any one participating. Last but not the least, and thanks to the manufacturers of Wow and Extreme Magic Sing, those who love to sing are able to do so ‘til they drop. “From one to sawa,” as we say in Filipino slang.
However, although there is a considerable population of Filipinos present in the Middle East, sadly, the version of Christmas here is still just that - a copycat of the real one back home. It’s just not the same. Christmas is definitely not in Saudi air! Often, and given the buildup of Mottawa scare recently, Christians here have no choice but to celebrate in the limited privacy of their homes. In public areas such as the malls and markets, there is no single trace of Christmas. No music, no bright lights, no Christmas trees and colorful lanterns, no children singing “Sa may bahay, ang aming bati, Merry Christmas na maluwalhati!”, no stingy homeowners answering back with “Patawad!”, no mothers rushing back and forth in between grocery aisles doing last minute food shopping, no vendors along the streets selling puto bumbong and bibingka, no firecrackers, which, no matter how the government strongly warn against year after year, people still insist on using. And the list goes on…
I remember my first Christmas here in Jeddah. We, the first batch of Filipinos in the company I work for, have just arrived. Although we were all new here and have known one another only for a couple of months, we managed to put together a very enjoyable Christmas party. It was like one of those family reunions I attend back home - altogether fun, warm and meaningful. Everyone dressed up for the occasion, and arrived with a gift on one hand and a pot of dish on the other. We ate, danced, sang, and laughed. We all surely missed our families back home, but spending Christmas with newfound friends and kababayans somehow killed the homesickness, at least for a while.
|With my friends and colleagues during our first Christmas in Jeddah in 2009|
|New Year 2009|
But this year was entirely a different story for me. Most of my Filipino colleagues were blessed to have been granted vacation and went home for the holidays. Some who were left behind like me were living in another compound. My roommate, the only one I share the flat with, was going on a flight. As there were very few of us left on base, there was no organized Filipino Christmas party this year.
On Christmas eve, after I did the laundry, I just planned on sleeping early. My roommate was flying in a few hours and for some reason, I wanted to be sound asleep when she leaves. At 11:30 in the evening, a neighbor rang the bell and very kindly invited me into their home for noche buena. I literally could smell their mouth-watering dishes from our living room, so I gladly grabbed the invitation. :-)
|My neighbors Mai, Glee and Dessa invited me to share with them |
a sumptuous noche buena
However, the following day, Christmas day, I was all by myself.
It was as if someone wanted to gauge my tolerance for loneliness, to know if I have indeed grown and how boldly I can hold up to it this time. Actually, I could have ran to the neighbors for company again, but I chose to stay alone at home. For some reason, I was up to the challenge.
I did another round of laundry. I threw in every piece I laid my eyes on that I thought needed some washing – hand towels, rags, floor mats... Since I was alone, I figured it was a good time to organize my stuff and get rid of the clutter in my closet and room. At lunch time, I ate the leftover from the previous day: ginisang upo. In between, I wished my friends and families “Merry Christmas” on Facebook.
When a friend of mine who was online at that time learned about how I was spending Christmas, he instantly sent me a hug emoticon. Okay, I did cry. We can say that that was another thing I did in between washing and cleaning. In some moments, I fought back more tears. I’ve been alone in the flat many times since October and it wasn’t really a problem for me, but something about the occasion bugged me about not being happy in a jumpy way on that day.
I guess I missed Christmas, the one that I used to have back home, the one that I used to know as a kid. I missed my family. I missed every little crazy thing people do back home in the spirit of Christmas, and I deeply long to be a part of that once again. Perhaps I envied those who were genuinely having a merry Christmas.
But if there was one good thing about being alone on the world’s commemoration of the birth of Christ, it is this: I get to spend it with ONLY the birthday celebrator. Thus, I am left with nothing else to do but celebrate Christmas in its most basic sense.
The story of the birth of Jesus is one of my favorite parts of the Gospel. Perhaps because first, I love babies! If there's anyone I love more than Jesus, that would be Jesus in baby form! :-) And second, I’d always fantasized about being present during the time when Jesus was born. What an honor that would be - to see and hold and cuddle baby Jesus. :-)
|There's nothing I love more than Jesus in baby form! :-)|
(photo from jesus-explained.org)
Well, I read my favorite Bible story again and I particularly liked this verse:
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy. That will be for all the people. Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord." Luke 2:10-11
Notice how, on top of anything else, it starts with an assurance: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy.” Hay, I suddenly felt like a fool crying on Christmas day. Truly, only fools like me would cry on Christmas day. Only fools who thought that Christmas was only about music, lights, gifts, food, parties, and all that. For even when I spend Christmas day alone on the loneliest place on earth, and even when being an OFW in Saudi deprived me of the Christmas I used to know, it can never steal from me this one thing that will always be true wherever I am: “Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord.”
And that is more than enough to keep my heart rejoicing.
Also, this short text kept me warm for the rest of the night. :-)
So you see, I didn't exactly have a merry Christmas, but I believe it's a miracle enough that I had a joyful heart despite spending it alone. I honestly like it in a sense - Christmas minus the glitz, lights, music, gifts and everything that makes it overrated, everything that makes it just a tradition, everything that it really shouldn't be about. Just me and Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior, on His birthday.