Below is a Christmas Reflection of my good friend Fides Bagasao. The foto below was taken on Christmas Day when she accompanied me at Incheon International Airport and bade me goodbye.
I traveled around several countries in Asia these past weeks :Cabanatuan City and Metro Manila in Philippines, Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Bangkok in Thailand ,Taipei (airport ) in Taiwan, and then Seoul, South Korea. In each of these places, pretty Christmas trees ,decorated with balls and blinking lights, made me reflect on the Christmas trees and décor I have seen in these different cities , on past Christmases and what Christmas means for me at this period in my life, that I am overseas and living in Seoul, South Korea.
First, was the Christmas tree in my youngest brother Vicky and Helen my sister -in-law’s home in Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija.. The Christmas tree was set up right before All Saints Day ,probably in middle of October 2008. The tree was green and tall and had local materials to make it look festive and pretty. Looking at it, really made me feel happy, something to look forward to.. images of “noche buena”(Christmas eve midnite meal) and almost two weeks of Christmas holiday with family and friends. A great time for reunions, recharging and reflections.
In Phnom Penh, I was surprised to see many places festooned with Christmas trees and glittering décor. Phnom Penh is thoroughly Buddhist, but shops, stores and window displays showed colorful Christmas décor as well as pretty chrismas trees.Golden and red glittering Christmas balls were aplenty. I was intrigued why a Budhhist city had sprung out with glittering Christmas décor.It was interesting that after less than 20 years after Cambodia had its first elections, following a horrible Pol Pot genocidal regime, its people specially in commercial Phnom Penh are putting out Christmas decorations.. it was specially interesting that a friend who has been in Cambodia since the early post war mentioned that people only wore black and white during those years right after the war and a peace treaty was signed.
Back in seoul, I was getting restless thinking about the Christmas décor I will put up for my little noche buena dinner on December 24th with young Filipino and Korean friends. Besides, I was starting to feel very homesick, that I will be missing Christmas this year in the Philippines.. I dressed up one Saturday afternoon in middle of December and headed straight for the store near the Miari-gogi bus stop that displayed a number of colorful Christmas trees.
I bought two Christmas trees that afternoon, one taller at 20,000 korean won (about US$16) .I realized later, this taller tree, all covered in white seeds to pass for snow,was a very ugly, almost hideous looking Christmas tree. I looked worriedly at the white tiny seeds that heavily covered the tree to pass for snow, and felt relieved that I had no pets who could get poisoned eating those seeds .The white tree was overloaded with red ribbons and Christmas balls and lights.. I was probably half asleep or half out of my mind to get this Christmas tree.But I thought I t would look pretty in the evening when it was all lighted up. Up to now, I could not set up this chritmas tree, cuz I still have to buy an extension cord. My housemate says just to borrow the one in the office. Brilliant.
The smaller tree I got for 5,000 korean won,(about US$3) I bought looked less hysterical. It was decorated by pink lilac Christmas balls and ribbons, that looked kinda delicate and really looked quite pretty when I turned the lights on with the whole room in darkness.
Last weekend, when the seoul winter temperatures were hitting below zero, I found myself in my bedroom, feeling cosy and content ,while I was curled up under a warm blanket reading a novel , with the Philippine radio on internet playing familiar Christmas carols while my little lilac christmas tree lights blinked merrily .
I felt I was really in my own room at home in the family house in Cabanatuan City very warm and secure in that feeling.
Next day, I went to Sunday mass in the Korean church in hehwah dong in a Filipino mass with about 500 pinoy OFWs, I was relieved to see two Christmas pine trees, so starkly bare and simple, in contrast to the ugly plastic ones that I bought the day before to ward off my loneliness and homesickness in the time of Christmas.Those plastic Christmas trees made in capitalist china(with chinese characteristics) reflected the hideous, distortion that Christmas had become in the hands of commercial profit, without any spirit or symbol of the spirit of christmas.
All the Christmas trees I saw, whether green or white, decorated with Christmas balls, ribbons, glittering stuff,whether in duty free of Taipei, or hotel in Bangkok, or shops in Phnom penh, contrasted dramatically with the two bare Christmas trees that stood at the altar of the Catholic Hehwadong Church in seoul. The trees provided a backdrop for the belen /nativity scene where the Holy Family, Mary ,Joseph, the infant Jesus, shepherds , and the three wise magi from the East knelt in adoration for the newborn Jesus.
But what I really miss is the Christmas tree that my Mommy used to set up at home in Cabanatuan while she was still alive. My Mommy’s Christmas tree was tiny and old, almost shabby, but its various décor,obviously some faded from many years of use, (ala velveteen rabbit) held for me an endless fascination everytime I encountered it : angels, stars, santas, cloth cut- outs of a round and cute doll.. then the Christmas lights that blink the whole night.
During her time, it was still safe to leave Christmas trees on overnite, but not anymore nowadays, when the market got flooded by Christmas lights made in china. My Mommy’s presents to her old amigas, the Bishop and a few priests in the catholic church , as well as the gifts for family members ,helpers, gardener,driver, all of which she asked me or my sister to wrap every year on Christmas eve would be all placed under this Christmas tree on Christmas eve.
After the noche Buena, when my father was still alive, my Mommy or brother would play the piano and we would sing Christmas carols after the midnite meal. Later,the whole family would gather around the christmas tree and the family after enjoying arroz caldo(traditional noche Buena in my father’s family in Ilocos) and macaroni salad or some rice cakes, one or two of the children would get a gift and call out the person’s name and hand out the gift to the noisy cheer of the whole family and househelp while pets were absorbed by the scene. Once in while, there would be some nuisance gifts- huge wrappers with tiny,tiny gift inside a huge box. These would draw a lot of noisy heckling and laughter.
Three years ago, the first time, we celebrated Christmas without Mommy, I could not bear seeing that old Christmas tree put up by my mother through the years without crying, so I decided to put up a new green pine Christmas tree for the family house and bought gold and red Christmas balls. Together with the kids and the househelp, I also decorated the tree with the local sinamay material in lieu of the ribbons…that Christmas,
Thank God, that particular noche Buena and exchange gifts, the children brought all their gifts to the family house and arranged them under the tree on top of the table in the living room.The children had internalized in their young age, the spirit of Christmas and New year:on Christmas Eve and New year’s eve, my young newphews and niece came to wake me and my older sister May to greet us Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. My sister and me had a late breakfast on Christmas day in 2005, something she and I haven’t done for a very long time. We chatted endlessly and there was a sense of warmth and bonding from that lengthy conversation. It felt like the old times.
I didn’t know that this was going to be our last Christmas together-she died suddenly from diabetis complications in September 2006. Our last time together was in early June 2006, when she drove me to the corner of Commonwealth where I waited for a taxi to drive me to the international airport for my flite to New York.
My Mommy’s and sister’s May passing away were quite close to one another- almost two years apart. This was in 2004 and 2006.
This year, I decided not to come home to the Philippines for Christmas. I coordinated a project that allowed me to come home four times since July 2008 and attend big events like the wedding of my eldest niece and stand as one of the ninangs.Then there was the “Todos Los Santos” which aside from my older brother Titos fixing props and chairs,tables at the memorial garden, I had to organize everything from flowers, to food, to drinks and desserts together with my sister in law and the househelp and import from the farm for that day, Violy. Usually, my younger brother would be making “abala”.
This year, it was only me and older brother who made abala, as my younger brother was still recovering fro a mild stroke and wasn’t feeling very strong still. Still, I was very happy to have been in those events. I missed watching the flicker of hundreds of glowing candles in the dusk, with Filipino families huddled around the candles watching over the graves of their beloved who had passed away. I had to travel to manila with my sister in law and we left before the dusk came .
This Christmas eve, I will still have dinner with a few friends, including one Filipina with her Indian boyfriend.. I will prepare chicken macaroni salad and the embotido I bought from the hewah pinoy flea market last Sunday.The rest of the menu,I don’t know yet.: maybe, some pasta and salad etc.. let us see. My Korean host, Rev. Kim, a Presbyterian pastor, invited me to his church, for the liturgy, dinner and children’s performance.
Last nite, I attended the Korean Coalition for Housing Rights fund raising annual dinner and it looked very much a success. The hall was filled to the rafters, as the saying goes.I enjoyed the salmon shashimi, and tuna eaten with raw pieces of garlic(Korean style) and then dipped in soy sauce. I also helped myself to the hot rice noodles soup with crushed seaweeds, tiny pieces of kimchi, something that I usually eat when I go to the supermarket in my neighborhood in samyang-sageori, in the northern part of seoul.Then, there was the delicious chapchae, Korean version of glass noodles pansit . I didn’t miss kimchi ether,even if thai friends said, I should avoid that to prevent attacks of gout. I washed down the food with cider ( Korean version of sprite ) and small dose of soju, the local alcohol.
I was fortunate that Fr. Frank, an American Catholic Jesuit priest who has lived in Korea for more than thirty years , came and sat with me during dinner and I got to converse with someone in English. Our conversation would be continuously interrupted by numerous people coming to greet Fr. Frank and I got introduced to most of them, so I had to stand and shake hands or bow while shaking hands to say anhyeong haseo (how are you)or kumapsamhida(pleased to meet you) :. there were a poet, a female parishioner, one of the community leaders, so on and so forth. Fr. Frank said he just came from the scouting event of their community and he narrated about that early morning up in the mountains, they enjoyed the snow fall.Okay, I thought that sounded really pretty but in my mind, I still chose being under warm blankets on an early morning…hehehe.
Many Korean friends,mostly from the communities and also NGOs, came and hugged, greeted me and invited me to their table. After the dinner, guests sat and listened to an arirang song (each region or district had their respective tune and lyrics) and a pansori(sung in Korean traditional performance) which made the guests started swaying in their seats with their arms on each other’s backs…the drums and the strange sounding chant copped the evening ‘s highlights.Earlier, a group of little girls dressed in santa sang a song but the noisy chatter of the guests drowned out their little voices.
I was very surprised to find the little girl , a daughter of one of the CONET trainors, had grown very tall and so cute. I said goodbye to her while she was playing with her friends. I was deeply touched to see her come suddenly to see me off as I waited for the elevator to bring me and other guests to the ground floor when I left later.
What is my plan for Christmas even and Christmas day 2008. I will be spending Christmas day with the families who got evicted recently here in Wangshimi in seoul. The catholic mass will be held at 11am ,most likely in the middle of the streets (the road will be shut off to traffic. I am not sure how I can survive being out in the cold for mor than an hour..iBut the thought of attending a catholic mass for a community who got evicted in the past few days, seemed to be the quiet but dramatic alternative for me to spend Christmas away from home. Away from kainan, gift –giving, reunions, holiday lull..
I feel secure and happy, totally at home in the thought that I will share Christmas day with homeless elderly Korean men and women,halmonis(grandmas) and arabojis(grandpas), little Korean children all bundled up in their winter clothes, and recalling the same event thousands of years ago, when the Holy family had nowhere to go and the Infant Jesus had to be born in a lowly”sabsaban”, a cave or a shed” just with animals and shepherds guarding their sheep on a cold night.
I look forward to that “spirit” of humility and inclusivity that marked that moment: animals, shepherds and wise men ,angels rejoicing in the birth of the Baby Jesus. More than two thousand years ago, no Christmas trees,green or white, ture or fake,,blinking lights or red and golden balls or ribbons or parties. Just a cold, quiet night, a family without a home, a lone bright star that brought the three magi from the east as well as the shepherds.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel afraid anymore that I will get homesick on Christmas day or Christmas eve. Spending Christmas day with the Korean families, grandpas and grandmas, and kids and their parents whose homes were demolished few days ago and currently struggling to get a new place to stay, made me feel I had come home for Christmas.
I hope you too, find that spirit and joy of Christmas this year with or without your family, at home or elsewhere-that truly, Christmas is welcoming not only our own beloved families and friends , but also those who have none or who have lost a lot in the recent days.
Maligayang Pasko sa inyong lahat!!
Seoul, South Korea
Dec. 22, 2008