A secret, much-missed celebration
Two weeks ago, Louise Malinis’ most-awaited package arrived from Manila: a planner that her sister sends annually, and a handwritten recipe of her mom’s hot chocolate.
Every Christmas spent away from the Philippines finds Malinis trying to recreate the holidays back home. This year, she would attempt to make her mother’s special hot chocolate to remind her family of the many warm Christmases celebrated in the old country.
Like Malinis, overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) Nikkei Tadili, an engineer working in Dubai for three years now, and Wilma Bonifacio (not her real name), an undocumented migrant worker, have learned to adapt to the subdued Christmas festivities in Muslim countries, stoically hiding their longing for something familiar.
Malinis’ family of four has been living in Doha, Qatar, for almost eight years now but managed to spend the last couple of Christmases in the Philippines. This year, they’re staying put in the Persian Gulf nation that recently started allowing Christian residents to celebrate the season quietly.
“It will be quite an adjustment this year because it will be just the four of us spending Christmas together,” said this wife of a power plant electrical engineer in an e-mail interview.
To provide their household a festive atmosphere typical of a Filipino Christmas celebration, the family put up a small tree and decked out their modest flat with some twinkling lights and scented candles.
The 33-year-old mother was also thankful that her family can attend the nine-day simbang gabi (dawn Masses), which their parish, Our Lady of the Rosary—the only Catholic Church in Qatar built in a religious complex in Abu Hamour—holds annually for its parishioners, mostly OFWs.
“Aside from the decorations, we try to prepare spiritually, trying to impart to our kids the real reason for Christmas,” she said.
Not too long ago, Christmas was discouraged in Qatar, a Muslim-majority country with Islam as its state religion. Photos or any depiction of the Yuletide season in foreign dailies were covered up, while Christmas songs were restricted. Greeting each other “Merry Christmas!” was not allowed.
The country now tolerates quiet celebrations of the season, with malls dressing up in winter and holiday trimmings and hotels holding various festivities like tree-lighting ceremonies, Santa Claus appearances on a camel and gingerbread- and cookie-decorating events.
But the hushed merrymaking in Qatar makes Malinis long for the cacophony that children make in her old neighborhood as they sing Christmas carols off-key.
She acutely misses them for her sons, who were only 5 and 3 when they moved abroad—too young to have much recollection of such comforting racket. But she would always try to make up for it, said Malinis.
“We try (to recreate the holiday cheer) by downloading Jose Mari Chan’s Christmas songs and singing to our hearts’ content, and by following my mother’s Christmas recipes—though not with a lot of success,” she said, adding that making the festivities as close to home as possible has become a Christmas family tradition in itself.
Christmas parties with Filipino coworkers and friends in Doha are common enough, she said. They would organize get-togethers with other Filipino families complete with games, a raffle draw and chocolate treats for the children.
But Christmas Day simply comes and goes in Doha. This year, it falls on a Sunday—a workday throughout Middle East so her husband has to report for work, Malinis said.
At home, she and the children would spend the special day chatting online with their loved ones in the Philippines. If her husband manages to get off work early, the family might have a proper Christmas dinner in a restaurant or a hotel, she said.
“In the seven years we’ve been an OFW family, I have come to the realization that there will always be a part of us as individuals that will never be truly complete until we’re in our homeland,” Malinis said.
“This is such a sad thought but the pang of sadness comes with the feeling of festivity and holiday cheer that we feel around Christmas,” she said. “You recognize it, you learn to live with it and you make space for it alongside the giddiness and joy in your heart—because that’s the reality of life away from home and from family,” Malinis added.
Tadili, an engineer working in Dubai for three years now, has learned to adapt to the subdued festivities, although the longing for something familiar remains. She said her Christmas celebration in the city depended on who she was with and where she was. A quiet day on the beach on Christmas Day might just be the perfect plan if she were spending it alone.
“Christmas passes (quietly) in Dubai,” she said, adding that she no longer puts up decorations in her flat unless her housemates offered to help. “There’s no Christmas activity here unlike back home where you really prepare for it and you have something to look forward to since you have get-togethers and parties popping up everywhere,” she said.
While the most luxurious city in the United Arab Emirates, known for extravagant shopping malls and brisk night life, offers expats and tourists a variety of attractions and activities during the festive season, Tadili said nothing really compares to Christmas in the Philippines.
“I miss noche buena and midnight Mass the most. Christmas has always been a solemn celebration for me. The only familiar thing I might do [this year] is attend Mass,” she told the Inquirer in an e-mail interview.
But for Bonifacio, an undocumented Filipino worker in Riyadh, Christmas is as uncertain as her tenure and safety.
The elementary school teacher in the Philippines was lured to the capital of Saudi Arabia in July 2013 by the promise of a decent salary as a tutor, but she eventually ended up as a domestic helper.
The first few months were harrowing, she said. After escaping her first employers, a fellow Filipino helped her get a job as dog-sitter. She took care of 10 dogs and recalled having to sleep beside five dogs and cleaning their poop, even as she was eating her meals.
She later got hired as a domestic helper in a Saudi household. “On Christmas Day that year, I just worked all day. I was not allowed to go out so I didn’t get to spend the holiday with other Filipinos here,” Bonifacio said.
Compared to other countries and open cities in the Middle East that tolerate Christmas festivities, Saudi Arabia has outlawed it, compelling Christians in the kingdom to celebrate the day in secret or in the privacy of their homes.
Bonifacio recalled that she didn’t have anything to remind her of the Christmases she had spent back home except for her silent prayers and the cheerful voices of her loved ones at the other end of the line. But she made the phone call brief because pretending to be happy and alright was too painful, she said. “My family didn’t know about my dire situation here, that I became a maid instead of a tutor,” said the mother of four.
Her third Christmas in Riyadh was better because she had more freedom to move around as she was then working part-time as house cleaner and nanny. She spent Christmas that year at the house of a kababayan with fellow OFWs. They grilled chicken and cooked pancit and puto, Bonifacio said.
“We celebrated quietly because Christmas parties are not allowed here. We are also not allowed to hold religious services,” she added.
Asked how she will be spending Christmas this year, she said: “Nothing is set in stone yet. My Filipino coworkers have agreed that if our employer allowed us to advance our salary, we’ll cook and eat together,” said Bonifacio, who is now working in an international school.
Should money become a problem, she said she would just mark Christmas with a simple prayer that next year, she’d be celebrating it back home with her family and relatives.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.