I can recall from my days in England, watching television at Christmas and seeing how others celebrated across the world. At one time I used to think about people in Australia, who seemed to be featured on the news every Christmas Day: "it's not like Christmas, hot weather and going to the beach". Why I used do think like that I really do not know. I did not like the cold once I got past the age of about 30. Or was it 35? Who cares, I hate the cold now. That's one of the many reasons I live in what many call paradise: Palawan, in the south west of the Philippines.
Being a predominantly Christian country, Christmas is a big occasion in the Philippines. It is also still a religious occasion, which of course it should be. Only a tiny percentage of people can afford gifts, so the emphasis is on family holidays, time together, and for many going to church. Very few families have anything special for Christmas lunch, they just don't have the money. They do make up for it, though, as Filipinos certainly know how to enjoy themselves.
Despite the lack of money in most families, Christmas starts early in the stores, around August. One thing they go in for in a big way here is Christmas lights. Sometimes even the poorest homes will be adorned with fairy lights, some having quite spectacular displays. Even in early November last year, as I travelled back from the jungle's edge about 90km south, it was quite magical to see the Christmas lights as we got near the city.
My first Christmas in the country was memorable. I was invited to a girlfriend's house Christmas Eve, a very poor but very friendly neighbourhood with mostly small timber houses cramped next to each other; intimate to say the least. Outside in the garden (a tiny yard) there were lights everywhere, set up for the party that would last all evening and into the night. I remember sitting there as they got everything organised around me, how magical and special it all was. Just a few months earlier I had been a resident in England and had only experienced Christmas in England. Now, I was sitting outside on a hot Christmas Eve, the sound of tropical insects a prelude to the modern disco music that was to follow later. I loved it.
As with most occasions in the Philippines, there were lots of children. Neighbours came and went, people moved from one party to another, and there was a constant flow of people and especially children. Children's games were followed later by adult versions of children's games, most of which had come from Western influence, but Filipinos always put their own stamp on the foreign habits they adopt. Alcohol would not have been a part of the occasion, but the adults were delighted when I offered to buy beer and rum.
At midnight, I was advised to go inside. I soon saw why. All hell broke lose with fireworks as midnight approached, exploding from every tightly packed, confined little garden in the neighbourhood. Fireworks that would have been banned in the UK, but I have to admit they were very loud and impressive. I was amazed, as nobody had warned me of this tradition beforehand.
Now, all my Christmases are tropical, and very different from those in England. I sometimes wonder how much Christmas would change here if it ever became a wealthy country. The major differences between here and England are the profligate spending and materialism in England, and the normal subdued spending in the Philippines. Yet it is the Filipinos who seem more able to enjoy it that the English.
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