It has been 15 years since my whole family has been back to the Philippines for Christmas. We all miss spending time with all of our relatives and loved ones during this most important holiday for Filipino Catholics. When the cousins were little, our family would gather at my Lola's compound in Makati for Christmas Eve. Sometimes we would all go to Simbang Gabi [Midnight Mass] together, but no matter what, we all came back for Noche Buena [Christmas Eve dinner] and opened our presents together.
One of the things I miss most about the tradition of going to Simbang Gabi is fresh bibingka and puto bumbong. I remember being hurried up the church steps after I stopped to smell the yumminess wafting from the street vendors' carts just outside church. I remember fidgeting more than usual during Mass, knowing that these treats were waiting just beyond the heavy gilded doors. I can almost taste that heavenly first bite of piping hot bibingka. It was the best reward for living through a nearly two-hour Mass.
Christmas 1984 was particularly difficult for my parents. It was our first Christmas in the United States, far away from our relatives, loved ones, and sacred traditions. We were still navigating the social waters of our new country and we didn't know anyone very well. Our downstairs neighbors were kind enough to invite us over for Christmas dinner, but we felt like outsiders in their family celebration. We felt a little stranded; we were most certainly not home for Christmas.
After the party, we all went back upstairs and my mother turned on the Carpenters Christmas album. During this song, my mother suddenly got up and went to the bathroom. I crept up to find that she had left the door ajar, so I peeked in. She was crying into a towel.
This Christmas, my parents will be surrounded by our growing family and counting many blessings. My brother has just bought a new house and is in a healthy new relationship with a woman my mother actually likes. My sister and her husband are expecting a baby girl in February; their combined brood will number five kids. And of course, Dusty and I are bellying up to the festivities with our own wee-beastie-in-the-making. My brother has predicted that my sister and I will be fighting over turkey portions at Noche Buena. I think we should have a turkey just for the almost-four of us.
Although this song still conjures up sad memories for me, it no longer makes me weep openly. Much. Our family is making new memories and traditions, and redefining what it means to be home for Christmas.
"I'll Be Home For Christmas" by The Carpenters