Back in the Philippines, we grew up doing kris kringle during the holiday season. For a long time, I haven’t done it. Overseas, it is unlikely we have like-minded people doing secret Santa (some don’t even celebrate Christmas or have a religious affiliation). Besides, we don’t get to spend Christmas together to make a run …
I am cleaning up my cloud when I started seeing photos from the different places I’ve been during the holiday season. Seeing the faces and the smiles of the people I have been celebrating Christmas away from our own families.
Four years ago this week in Palestine 🇵🇸
These are the people I go to church in Gaza every Saturday afternoon. The church is in the old town not far from a mosque and a Coptic church.
It was taken at the priest’s house slash office within the compound. Where we usually gather for simple meals after mass. Apart from the religious, there are three other Filipino, one Ugandan, and two Palestinian with me in the photo.
We all look forward to this mass every Saturday. As you know, Palestinians are Muslims, so having this mass, being part of the minority religion gives the service more meaning as it usually is back home. During the English Mass, we’ll be lucky to have ten people in the church, but the Arabic mass in the morning would have a little over fifty, according to some parishioners that join both services. There are only a small number of Roman Catholics living in Gaza. The majority are Muslims and the Greek Orthodox. I don’t think there are Jewish in there for obvious reason.
Like all in Jerusalem and other cities in Palestine, you will have all religions sharing the space – Greek Orthodox, Muslim, Catholic, and Jews.
As it is with Filipino culture, food brings people together. So the house of HI always brings lasagna that we put on the table and shared with our small group.
The compound also has the orphanage and catholic school in the strip run by the Missionary of Charity. Children with special needs and disabilities are housed in the orphanage. In my personal capacity, while there, I tried to help out a bit and meet the physiotherapists that help the kids daily.
I like to add a disclaimer that my organization, Humanity, and Inclusion (HI), has no religious affiliation. My religious participation in any place I’ve been in my personal belief and tradition.
One year ago this week in Entebbe, Uganda
Last year before heading home to the Philippines, I chanced upon the skinniest Santa Clause, Mickey Mouse, and Winnie the Pooh in Entebbe.
I don’t know how kids around the world would react to see that their favorite Christmas guy and some of their bedtime buddies had lost so much weight when they moved to Uganda 😅
We’re so used to see them or draw them plump, larger than life character that young and older people love but not this lot, and my colleague cannot miss the opportunity. I won’t show my photo with me in it because it looks like I ate all the cookies and didn’t share 😂😂
We know that many children under five all around the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, suffered from malnutrition. Seeing these characters, in their skinny form, doesn’t help lift the image to fun and bounty at this time of the year. It takes away the joy of knowing the situation around the world, and something must be done, PRONTO!
Two years ago this week in Arua, Uganda
I am barely a month in Uganda when this photo was taken in front of the house I stayed in for the first three months. I’m with Gladys out mental health technical advisor, and Topista, our house manager, best dressed than the two of us combined.
In the photo, we are getting ready to go to the annual Christmas celebration of the West Nile team. The best team, I think, before they got disbanded, and new people joined in.
The party went on and on, and I discovered the wonder of Ugandan dance and dancers. Staff can twerk, shake their booty, and dance up to the wee hours if you let them. It was a good experience to have as a new member of the team. Unfortunately, this year, no party was happening because of the government’s SOP on the pandemic. Let’s try in 2021.
All these photos are leading to the day Jesus was born.
It’s good to look back at the memories of when I was away from home during the season. The celebration of Christmas is always ideal when shared with the family, but it was not always the case. We are lucky to have good friends to share it by making the distance feels not so far and the celebration is as good as it gets.
In all my travels and time spent living overseas, I can count in one hand the number of times I didn’t spend Christmas at home. I always make it a point to be home in time for the big day because I can. It was one perk I bragged to friends when we compared notes and the benefits of our work.
Last years homecoming … embracing all that is shiny and bright
I started my sojourn around Asia, then I moved further, but I always get to go home for one of the most festive seasons we have back in the Philippines. Why would you miss the holidays that literally starts when the “ber” months start. Songs and food begin to permeate your daily life, and some even begin to deck the halls and go full blast after the “Halloween” decorations are down.
When I first joined the Uganda team in 2018, I knew I would spend my Christmas in the country, arriving only four weeks before there’s no way my organization will send me back home, and my salary won’t allow me yet to travel that far and that long.
Instead, I talked to my friend and asked if I can spend time with his young family. Sil was my flatmate for a year when I was in Palestine, and he’s Ugandan. When he learned I am coming here; he introduced me to his family. The family I only knew from pictures back then are now my neighbors. My first visitor when I arrived was his wife Martha and the last born Michael – the little man was born the same time as my dad, so he’s a kindred soul. So we sealed the deal, and Martha was so gracious to accommodate me.
Martha and Michael welcomed me on my second day of arrival in Kampala
The celebration here is never comparable to the one we have back home. There no deck the halls nor blasting Christmas music everywhere. But what I experienced was a toned-down celebration, preparation of self for the arrival of Jesus Christ. I cherished the two weeks I was with the boys — since I was in their room, we got to hang out. I’ve grown attached to them that I allowed them to call me “auntie Josephine” while I refused others to call me that, let alone auntie 😁
Back then they are two … now they are three
But the best Christmas experience I had away from home was in 2016 when I had the profound experience of following Christ’s birth to where he was born – in Bethlehem. Oh yeah! It was surreal to think that I was in the place where it all happened, like being transported by Gizmo in Superbook.
Although I’ve been in Israel for a while before Christmas and visited the holy sites many times, when I was there during the season, I can’t help but feel to be the luckiest person alive. I was not a tourist; I was a pilgrim. I immerse myself in the whole experience, the entire nativity, according to the bible, to how we were taught in school. It was the best celebration ever!
Day parade … with friend Vincent at the Bethlehem grounds
Night festivities … lights, people, food, and music
Now, for a covid-19 reason, I am not going home. The pandemic had dampened my desire to be home, even though I missed my dad and my family. My sister and I – who’s in Rome, agreed that we would not risk ours and dad’s health by spending Christmas back home. He understood because he has quarantined himself too, only allowed to be in his garden.
Back home, people are still attending “simbang gabi,” a novena, nine days before Jesus Christ is born and social distancing they tried so hard.
There will be “puto bumbong” – Christmas dessert made of steamed rice, colored in purple, coated in muscovado and coconut shaving, at the church gates. A must-try if ever you find yourself in my country during the Christmas holiday season. There’s also the steamed rice cake “bibingka” topped with salted eggs, cheese, and more coconut shavings. Two of the many Christmas food I crave when home.
Despite the distance, our family is never far from us and the images of the season are always fresh in my head.
Our last family new year photo in yellow theme
I learned a long time ago that I would need to make sacrifices, one of which is being away from people I love. Thanks to digital technology, we feel closer to each other. Though it is different, it’s the best we have, especially now that a virus cripples the world. Nobody knows where it’s from and when it will go away.
Here now, I am trying to channel the holiday spirit and feel a little festive. Although if you see around me, my house included, it’s hard to tell if it is indeed Christmas season. I celebrate the friends I have and the reason I am here.
Back then and now, Kampala never gave that festive vibe, You can feel it in malls, but that’s all you can get. I haven’t been to church for a long time, and I have not heard live choirs and seen happy faces in places of worship. Regardless of where I spend the holidays, the spirit will always be there.
Saying that I am still in that “should I stay or should I go” indecisiveness. Although since yesterday, sixty percent of the people I talked to encouraged me to visit Kenya, others tell me to go to Zanzibar – which I missed last time I am in Tanzania. As I said, I still have the weekend to think things through, and before you know it, I might be sipping coconut juice out of its natural container somewhere in the region.
What is important is that we never forget the reason for the season – the birth of Jesus Christ, and all that follows are the fruit of him being born into this world.