JEDDAH—When he flew home two weeks before Christmas, Arnold Barrion knew he could expect a holiday mood in their house in Taguig City, with Christmas decor already set up by his wife and two teenage children. This would be his fourth Christmas vacation in the Philippines since he came to work in Saudi Arabia six years ago.
Last year, he spent Christmas in Jeddah to be able to take the board examinations for accountancy administered by the Professional Regulatory Commission (PRC) in several cities in the Middle East. It was a blue Christmas away from his wife Imelda, son Jesse Lorenzo and daughter Sofia Alexandra. (But it paid off—he passed the board to become a certified public accountant.)
“As soon as I arrive in the Philippines, it is already Christmas in our home,” said Arnold, who works as a credit analyst at the National Commercial Bank in Jeddah. “It’s routine for my wife and my two children put up the Christmas trimmings at the start of December,” he said in an interview a few days before his flight on Dec. 12.
Christmas decor consists of a Christmas tree with soft, multicolored flickering lights and glittering ornaments neatly hung or draped on its branches in the living room; garlands on the front door and walls; hanging lanterns or parol made of capiz shells on the porch and on windows and other yuletide adornments at their home in Perpetual Village.
Like any other practical overseas Filipino worker (OFW), Arnold is keen on not spending lavishly to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who tradition says was born in a manger in Bethlehem. The dishes will be Filipino fare—food he has missed during the past months away from the family.
“Christmas is not an ordinary holiday for us. This is the most awaited season. It is for this reason that given the limited time, I make it a point to make my stay worthwhile. This does not mean lavish spending but watching TV together or spending quality time with my son and my daughter,” Arnold said.
“My wife and I will cook dishes, do the laundry together and do household errands for our bonding moments. The dishes on our table are simple, usually the ones I truly miss—laing, sinigang, kare-kare and other dishes with pork. We do not go for extravagant spending.”
As devout Catholics, the Barrions will complete the Misa de Gallo or Simbang Gabi which starts on Dec. 16 and culminates on Christmas Eve, when the family dines together for the traditional noche buena, along with some relatives and friends whom the family expects to come over to their home. Gifts, normally placed under the Christmas tree, would then be unwrapped.
Many cannot come home
Arnold is among the thousands of Filipino migrant workers in Saudi Arabia who are lucky enough to be able to spend Christmas with their families back home—either because their
vacation falls in December or they have made arrangements with their employers to allow them to spend the festive season in their home country.
The majority of the estimated one million OFWs in Saudi Arabia, whose vacation falls in other months, have to spend Christmas in the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam, does not mark Christmas Day as a holiday. For Cleo Gorillo and his wife Melga, that means spending Christmas Day at their work places.
“My husband and I have spent Christmas together in Jeddah for nine years now. Talking about how we spend Christmas here is quite difficult. It makes me homesick. But it is a reality that we have to face,” said Melga, a dialysis nurse at the Al Bir Kidney Center whose two children are with her parents in Burauen, Leyte.
The midnight call
“Every year, when the 24th of December comes, we would call our daughters and my family at about 7 p.m. Jeddah time, which is 12 midnight in the Philippines. These are painful moments because when you talk to them you want to touch them, to hug them. It breaks your heart but you really have to face reality.”
Joining friends after work
When Christmas Day falls on Friday, the rest day in Saudi Arabia (which seldom happens), the couple celebrates Christmas Day at home. If it falls on a weekday, they report for work. For Cleo, that would be at the Madinah Press, where he works as a technician.
This year, as Christmas Day falls on a Tuesday, the couple will celebrate Christ’s nativity after work with friends in a Catholic community with whom they have arranged to share food for noche buena.
“That’s about the time when we call our families back home. Cleo will place a call to his family in Villaba (also in Leyte) and then to our daughters and my family,” Melga said.
“Thanks to the Internet, we can now chat with our families. They would show us the food they have on their table and vice versa. This is a time when I miss my mother’s suman latik, her specialty, and the Christmas tree that our family sets up in our living room.”
Like other Christian Filipinos in Saudi Arabia, the Gorillos and the couple Freddie and Liza Reyes have also set up a Christmas tree in their flats. And like the Gorillos, the Reyeses also make a call on Christmas day to their two children who are staying with grandparents in Montalban, Rizal.
The Reyeses wanted to spend their Christmas this year with their children back home but couldn’t. “It’s hard to imagine (celebrating Christmas away from the children), but since Liza got a new job at the day-care center of KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) we cannot take a holiday break,” said Freddie.
They, too, will join friends after work for the noche buena on Christmas Eve.