By Ana Villanueva-Lykes — THE most celebrated holiday in the Philippines requires a lot of work and time put into it – three months to be exact – to commemorate the humble birth of a baby in a manger. When the “ber” months roll in, Filipinos everywhere in the world begin the planning and the hard work that will lead to that one festive day. But the whole three months is not just about the preparing and the waiting. The preparation in itself becomes a celebration, for others, a sacred ritual, a tradition.
You know Christmas has commenced in the Philippines when you start hearing Frank Sinatra jingling his bells in jeepneys even though there is nary a snowflake falling from the smog-filled sky. But the air is thick with anticipation and the joyful preparation ensues. The tradition of decorating and lighting the plastic trees begin. Suddenly, the air seems cooler and the strong desire to spend cannot be ignored. And it’s only September. Before December nears, the entire Christmas bonus – yet to be handed out – has already been spent.
Malls are eager to indulge. Lavish displays of Christmas scenes are already in every corner. Gigantic empty boxes wrapped in glittering paper rests on artificial powdered snow while a red- suited dark-skinned fellow walks around dispensing ho-ho-ho’s.
Concerts are already being planned, constructions are under way, holiday collections have been launched, and the daily practice for the Christmas program starts. Christmas has begun.
Meanwhile in the workshop
This time of the year, the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) is busier than Santa’s elves as traffic enforcers always anticipate motorist madness with people rushing to get their shopping done and trying to get from one party to the other. Traffic congestion in Manila is expected to increase by at least 20%.
By November, MMDA is already preparing the Christmas lanes (alternate routes) to help ease the heavy traffic on main thoroughfares. In addition, the agency is working with malls to adjust their operating hours so as not to aggravate the rush hours.
Phone companies are also getting ready, expecting the usual data and voice traffic surge during the holidays. The Philippines has been ranked No. 1 for the past few years in highest SMS traffic during the festive season with over 2.3 billion text messages sent.
In our hearts
The pious ones also prepare to make room for the coming of the Savior. Catholic practitioners for instance observe the season of advent, the time of expectant waiting and preparation for the Nativity of Jesus. Devotees flock the church as early as 3 in the morning for Simbang Gabi from December 16 all the way to Christmas Eve. Early risers are rewarded with a steaming hot bibingka enjoyed under the saints and stars overhead, blinking in approval. But really, the reward is a wish granted, a promise of the parol, the Star of Bethlehem.
Across the seas
While people are stocking up on candy for Halloween and picking pumpkins at the patch in the Western world, Pinoys abroad are also busy getting ready, because the coming of the Savior also means going home. For months they squirrel away their wages for that expensive plane ticket that will reunite them with their family on Christmas Day.
It is not surprising that airfare skyrockets during the holidays. Rates peak after thanksgiving to Christmas, because people are waiting to do away with the festivities and the expenses before they can afford to book.
The smarter ones start saving at the beginning of the year and then shop for tickets by September or even as early as May when the rates are relatively cheaper. But booking is only part of the journey. There’s the coordinating with relatives for reservations, accommodations, transportation, the big homecoming extravaganza, and the of course, the pasalubong.
Inside the box
Perhaps even more anticipated than the long-missed relative is the balikbyan box, the treasure chest filled with bounty, a year’s worth of hard work: slightly used Coach purses, an X-box bought on layaway, bars of Tobleron cherished like gold bullion bars, and Johnny Walker carefully wrapped in thick fluffy towels that smell “stateside”. These are collected in a span of months or a year, products of President’s Day sales, Black Friday sales, garage sales, and big bonuses. By September, the packing begins, and the veteran stuffs everything in a 2 x 3 x3 ft. space, sparing not a single cavity, squeezing socks and candies in Nike Kobes to make the most out of the $99 shipping charge.
Before end of October, the bulging box is sent off, because it takes about two months for the package to arrive to eagerly waiting relatives. Sometimes the box doesn’t arrive in time for Christmas, so some start the process by August.
Balikbayans bringing the goodies back home with them are mindful of the 23-kg weight limit, again putting to good use the packing skills even with the carry-ons, because not a single relative is to be left out. Everyone gets to partake in the bounty and join the joyous occasion.