“I won’t be home for Christmas”: How OFW families mark the holiday season

AJPress illustration by Jillian Penalosa

by Nathalie Robles and Ritchel Mendiola / AJPress

IT is not easy to work far from the place you call home. But this ‘fear of missing out’ lingers especially on a special day like Christmas — when streets are decorated and jolly and everyone seems to spend this season with their families and loved ones.

According to Philippine Statistics Authority, over 2.3 million Filipinos will be celebrating Christmas apart from their families this year.

The unsung heroes, the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), all over the world brave the loneliness and the distance to sustain the needs of the families they left behind in the Philippines. Some might get to come home during the holidays, but most of them might not, given their circumstances.

Their families do their best to celebrate Christmas in a way that feels like they’re still together — by conquering the winter chill with good old-fashioned Filipino spirit.

No matter how bad Rachel Rivera wants to go home, she cannot. As an OFW, her vacation days are very limited so it doesn’t seem practical to spend the holiday season with her family if the trip would be expensive and time consuming. Of course, she misses her family in the Philippines. But she cannot afford to throw her job away because it pays more than what she can earn back home. That is a sacrifice she continually makes to ensure a better future for her family.

Her family isn’t happy with the setup, either. They miss their bubbly and fun Rachel who would always jumpstart the holidays by gathering them all in one place and be the life of the party. She would urge the young ones to stop playing for a while so they could start with their festivities. She would ask the elders to prepare their gifts to the younger members of the family. Now that she is distant, there is a feeling that something is missing.

Diana Mendiola with her family.

But thanks to technology and its innovative nature, she can spend time with her family even if distance does not seem to be in their favor. Through video-messaging applications, she can easily participate in the Christmas festivities by being on the other side of the screen. It is a little inconvenient, the family admits. But for Rachel and her family, it is better than nothing.

They have created a new tradition so that Rachel can be a part of the celebration — she prepares her own Christmas meal and ‘joins’ the family dinner via technology. They would laugh, joke and talk about almost everything.

As a family, they too worry about Rachel. They often think about whether she eats on time or sleeps enough. They never fail to remind her to take care of herself. They would pray for her daily. They know that if things would go beyond their control, they only have to trust the God above.

Even if she herself cannot grace the halls of the place she called home, the gifts she sends become her substitute. Canned food, clothes, chocolates, toys and gadgets for all her relatives would make their way to the family’s doorstep by Christmas through a balikbayan box. Her cousins would send her pictures of the nieces and nephews enjoying the toys she sent, while her aunts and uncles pose for the camera, showing off the clothes she gave them.

All the smiles on their faces and wholesome expressions of gratitude are enough to keep Rachel going.

“All my sacrifices will soon be worth it,” she said.

Even if she can’t be home for Christmas this year, she is saving up to return to the Philippines for good.

For Diana Mendiola, whose husband is a Filipino seaman currently situated in Malta, Europe, celebrating Christmas apart is a normal occurrence, having already experienced this for over 10 years.

“It still gets a little lonely,” she said. “But it’s nothing we can’t handle.”

As soon as December rolls around, she and their two daughters, Dennise and Hannah, start decorating their three-story house. It’s nothing too grand, just the usual holiday fixtures like bright lights, a Christmas tree in the corner of their living room, and a parol lantern outside their home.

Christmas Eve is a busy time for her. She prepares for the night’s festivities with a holiday menu that can feed her immediate and extended family — the ever-present hamonado and keso de bola; spaghetti; fried chicken; lumpiang shanghai; and her specialty, buko salad.

“I like making buko salad because it gives variety to the menu,” she said.

After attending Misa de Gallo at their nearby parish church, she and her family start eating as soon as the clock strikes 12. That’s when she contacts her husband, Edward, as well.

“We use Skype to communicate so he can see everyone else,” she said, explaining how their tablet gets passed around among family members so everyone can offer their greetings and holiday wishes.

“That’s how he catches up with the rest of the family,” she added.

To compensate for his absence, Edward usually sends Christmas gifts that everyone opens during the call so he can see their reactions. Diana and her daughters also show off the Christmas decors around the house and provide a play-by-play account of the ongoing festivities to ease the homesickness.

In Diana’s household, Christmas is a family affair. Despite the holiday made even colder by the empty head-of-the-family seat, the love and happiness shared by Diana’s other family members are enough to keep them warm and cozy this season.

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