Here in the Philippines, it is Christmas, and everyone is headed home to the provinces to celebrate with their families. Ferries and airports are crowded, and the Police are busy watching for some Abu bombs (the communist NPA traditionally agrees to a Christmas cease fire, so our area of town is safe).
In Manila, and in the newer stores, we have Santa, and the stores do decorate with artificial Christmas trees and wreathes. Yes, there are pine-trees up in the mountains, but here the lights are strung on ordinary live trees, including palm trees, and on houses.
But the main symbol of Christmas is the Parol, a paper lantern made to look like the star of Bethlehem: even the poorest person can make one out of bamboo sticks and paper, and put a candle or small electric bulb inside it to decorate their home.
Every day we have parades, andÂ Christmas parties to attend: everyone is invited, family, friends, and the friends of the cooks/maids. Diet? What’s that? Fried fish, Pancit noodles, sweets of all sorts, lechon (barbecue pig), and for “Buena Noche”, the family meal after midnight mass, ham.
Traditionally, in the nine days before Christmas, the young folk attend “Simbang Gabi”, which is the early morning mass novena (nine days of mass and prayer, traditionally held before dawn so the farmers can attend). Even if you get up at to attend Simbang Gabi at 4 am, don’t count on going to bed early, because every night, musicians come to the door playing songs. The kids come too: banging on drums (usually an aluminum pot) while they singÂ songs: which means they keep it up until you give them a small gift (usually one peso) to “thank” them for the music.
We don’t have too many street kids/orphans in town, but we do have a lot of poor kids from families who don’t get a lot of money working. Often those who work in town as laborers also have fields shared with other family members which they plant and harvest,. and this year some of them had their crops destroyed by the flooding with the typhoons that arrived during the harvest last September. So that means they have to buy their rice instead of eating what they harvested.
In the last few years, rice has skyrocketed to 35 pesos per kg (about 35cents a pound), but if you are poor, you can get subsidized food, so that helps keep the hunger down.
The real problem is medicines. There is a government clinic, but with long lines. And there is a generic drug store down the street, with low prices, but I always worry about the quality of the drugs. I often buy the medicines for the staff and their families, and pay the extra to go to get a brand name. Antibiotics for sick kids are usually kept cheap, but the real problem here is high blood pressure. A recent agreement between the government and big drug companies did lower the prices of brand name medicines, which helps.
But sickness can wreck a family’s finances.
For example, one driver who we hire sometimes just came to ask for a loan. His wife just had a Ceasarian section at a private hospital, and he was asking our son, who runs the business, for a loan to pay the bill. Our regular staff is covered by business health insurance, and we often pick up the rest of the bill for them, but this doesn’t cover those who only work a few days a month.
Usually, if you need money, you ask family and friends first. Often there is someone working overseas who will wire the money to you. Then you ask your employer, who in our area is still considered part of the extended family relationship. These “loans” are often never paid back in cash, although it means you now owe that person a favor in return in the future.
If you can’t get family loans, the government “Small loan” office down the street. But that amount of money, which comes to a mere $400, is hard to pay back when you are a farmer and outside work is intermittent.
Without cooperation and reciprocity among family members, the poverty would be worse; a family member who finds work overseas often helps with school fees and other expenses for a large extended family. Alas, with the high unemployment and lack of local jobs in rural areas, it means a lot of people migrate to cities, where the social networks of family and friends may not exist.
So when one hears the story of Mary and Joseph finding no room in the inn, I have to go with the newfangle translation: That she delivered in the stable because there was no room in the guest room. The Pinoy equivalent would be the garage in the modern home, or underneath the second floor in traditional homes, where the bedroom is raised up to catch the breeze, the kitchen room is partly raised, and there is a ground level roomÂ under the bedroom where chickens and dogs and things are stored, but could quickly be cleaned up and made warm for the arrival of a new life.
Unlike the sentimental Nativity scenes of the affluent west, here the thought of a child born in a garage, a barn, or a storage area, or in a makeshift shelter, or in a school that is serving for refugees from the latest natural disaster, is something that happens. And the family, neighbors, and those nearby all try to help as they can. I’m sure Mary was not alone in her labor, but had her husband’s relatives to help her deliver her firstborn too.
The star is one way to remember that child, and since it was the star that guided the Magi to visit and give gifts to the child, it is a way to remind us that Christmas is about having an open heart to give gifts to those children around us too, for it is in giving to the least of those around us that we show our love for the Creator who gives the gift of life.
Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.