(Let me share my Christmas story, my first in Dutchland. The title means Day Before Christmas. Despite it being a not-so-happy night, I sure had a terrific Christmas day with the family. Although Christmas at home is still merrier)
An announcement blared from the invisible speakers just as I reached 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. Together with my boyfriend, they are the only family I will be celebrating the Christmas with. It is zero degrees and the wind is blowing. I just lost my gloves few hours ago and my coat is only good for autumn. I still haven’t learn 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. Few compared to the number of presents I would be preparing had I been at home. But these cost almost the same as I have allotted for the presents for at least 20 relatives in the Philippines.
I wanted to buy that leather boot they have on sale in the boutique near my office. The pair is a gorgeous reddish-brown, knee-high and very warm. It is the perfect winter boots, my feet would not be wet and cold again from walking in ankle-deep snow. But the price would cover 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 before personal necessities, especially during occasions like Christmas. The balikabayan box must be filled and no one should be forgotten. This is a responsibility that a Filipino migrant can never escape, that I happily obliged 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 indication of the 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 the stores still closes at 6 p.m.. No Divisoria or Greenhills to run to for last minute Christmas shopping. And there is definitely no shopping rush but the traffic is a bit heavy. No stranger greets wish you a merry Christmas on the street.
When the train finally came, I heaved a sigh of relief. My hands are very cold and I couldn’t feel my ears anymore. Two minutes after, it crawls through the rails, passed the tunnels of Rotterdam and out of the city. We passed acres of fields covered with pristine white snow, bald trees, pine trees and rows of windmills. It is four in the afternoon and 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 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 for my motherland.
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 my sister and me used gather from the backyard and decorate with cotton balls and twisted colored papers to resemble a Christmas tree. I never had a real Christmas tree but I am longing for the ones we used to have.
We are having take-out Chinese food for dinner. This was announced two weeks ago when I offered to cook the Christmas dinner and they declined. Of course, it cost a lot of 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 grill chicken. Apparently, the concept of Noche Buena doesn’t exist in this household.
After dinner and a couple glasses of wine, I excused myself and went to my room. I relieved the conversation earlier with my mother, who cheerfully told me that they are enjoying a simple Noche Buena with my relatives and that everyone has been given a gift 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, how a simple message can make me cry.
Tonight for the first time, my phone is silent from the successive forwarded Christmas greetings.
While looking outside, the snow and the street lamp making a tranquil picturesque image outside my window, very different memories of home running through my head. The noise that the carolers, the mouth-watering and fattening Noche Buena my mother would prepare, my dad and his drinking buddies coming on Christmas day, my inaanaks lining in the door for their annual 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 ship going to Marinduque and the drunken scary tambay’s outside my gate. Without them, Filipino Christmas would never the same.
I put the heater on a warmer setting, crawled under the blanket and closed my eyes. I will be asleep after a while. And my dreams will take me back to my home celebrating the Christmas, with the warmth and love of my friends and my family.
Philippine Star, December 28, 2009 08:24 AM