A belated Christmas

Michael G. Yu
Christmas is truly more fun in the Philippines

THE TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS. Even Charlie Brown wanted to know. All photos by Michael Yu

MANILA, Philippines – Sometime in mid-July, more than a month after the entire family had relocated to Hong Kong, we had finally gotten around to unpacking most of the stuff shipped from Manila.

Only two boxes remained sealed: one contained our Christmas tree, the other the lights and decors used to dress it up.

Rather than have the two unsightly packages gather dust in the corner of our living room, I came up with an ingenious plan: “I know! Why don’t we just put up and decorate the tree right now?”

The angry stare with matching uni-brow that my wife gave me seemed to say that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life! I should have taken the hint and stopped there but couldn’t help it as I shot back, “Geez, sorry, I was just thinking outside the box. Wahahaha! Get it, ‘outside the box’? Hey, where you going? That was funny!”

That earned me a night outside the kulambo (totally worth it, by the way).

But the more I think about it, what was stopping us from putting up the tree, anyway? It was just a few weeks shy of September 1, the “official unofficial” first day of the Christmas season in the Philippines, the day when radio stations play “Pasko Na, Sinta Ko” or “Christmas in Our Hearts” at the stroke of midnight, morning talk shows begin their Christmas countdowns (“115 days to go!”) and the phrase “-Ber months na!” trends among Filipinos around the world, including Hong Kong.

A Christmas billboard in the subway station

But for the rest of the people in this city, zilch. The big celebration around this time is not Christmas but the Mid-Autumn Festival. And then there’s China National Day on the 1st of October, then what they call the Chung Yeung Festival in mid-October (something like our All Saints’ Day), then Halloween.

All that time, without anything Christmas-y around, I just didn’t feel right; there was something truly missing.

In mid-November, while walking along Canton Road in the shopping district of Tsimshatsui, my two-year-old daughter points at something to my right and asks, “What’s that?”

I turn to see a number of people having their photographs taken in front of a medium-sized Christmas tree decorated with dozens of dancing red and white lights. Finally! That’s the first sign of Christmas I’ve seen all year. All I could think was, “What in heaven’s name took you so long?”

Suddenly, billboards sprout up around town featuring winterscapes of snowmen and Santas. Shopping centers try to outdo each other with the most elaborate, impressive displays, all scrambling to deck the malls with all things Christmas.

All things Christmas? Not quite, I slowly realize.

Christmas display at New Town Plaza, Shatin, New Territories, Hong Kong

Although I finally begin to feel a bit of that elusive Christmas spirit, I notice that all the decors around town are of a commercial Christmas. Present are the elves, the reindeer, the twinkling lights, the trees adorned with tinsel and colored ornaments.

Conspicuously absent, though, are the wise men, the manger, the Star and, most of all, the Baby. 

This reminds me of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the classic cartoon by Charles M. Schulz. It’s a story about Charlie Brown feeling depressed and not knowing why while everyone else was merrily caught up in the glitz and bling of a commercial Christmas. When everyone turns on him for being such a downer, he wonders out loud whether anyone can help him understand what Christmas truly means.

Linus, his blanket-carrying friend, then shares the story of the first Christmas centuries ago:

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. ”

As the most emotional country in the world, I am not surprised that as a people, we joyfully celebrate the Christmas season for essentially a 3rd of the entire year (while the other two-third’s are spent lamenting over the excess weight gained from too many Christmas parties).

A dressed up lamp at an Italian restaurant. Nowhere near Christmas decors we have in the Philippines.

What we should be most proud of, though, is that we have not forgotten what we celebrate every 25th of December. That is the real blessing. None of this politically correct “Happy Holidays” of the West.

In the Philippines, what we celebrate for more than one hundred twenty days a year is something of genuine spirit, the most sincere greeting of “Merry Christmas” in the world.

I have a copy of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” sitting on my desk at the office (the pathetic-looking tree features prominently in the story, which I suggest you read or watch) to remind me of the season’s true meaning. With Bukas Palad’s “Pasko Na!” album playing in the background, I’ve managed to coax the Filipino Christmas spirit to come out of hiding and join me in the cold, wet Hong Kong winter.

And no matter how late in the year it has decided to appear, there really was no stopping it.

Now that it’s finally arrived, I couldn’t be any happier. – Rappler.com

Michael G. Yu currently works for a Chinese-owned multinational company in Hong Kong as head of Corporate Human Resources. Other blog entries he has written for Rappler are: Mornings as meant to be, Soc Villegas, autism and the challenges of parenthoodThe evolution of diaper changing and On the outside looking in, among others.