Cesar family celebrates Christmas in Halifax.

Christmas

Celebrating the ‘ber’ months

What the festive spirit means to the most Christmas obsessed culture on Earth

A mild evening in the middle of November does little to put a Canadian in the Christmas mood. While strolling through Fairview, it seems evident from the outside that most homes in the neighbourhood aren’t ready for the holidays yet either. At this point in the year it’s still socially unacceptable for Canadians to be fully decorated for the season, but in amongst the highrises in a small third-floor apartment lives a family who has already been celebrating for the past two months.

Upon entering their dwelling, eyes are drawn towards a row of red, green and gold poinsettias, which lay across the surface of a TV stand. This line of flowers points directly at a few glossy bags on the floor, one covered in cartoon snowflakes, the other with a snowman on the front. These bags are placed carefully beneath the green prickly branches of a seven-foot plastic tree that has been expertly decorated with dangling silver and gold ornamental balls, some gleaming and mirrored, others frosted and sparkling.

A string of bright white lights wraps around the tree’s branches, and weaves in between shimmering gold flowers, as well as blue and white bows. The tree’s most distinctive feature is a dozen glittering purple butterflies that lay upon the branches as though they may take flight. At its peak sits a little silver and gold star that twinkles against the light. Just to the right of the tree, fixed to the top of a coffee table, stands a toy Santa Claus who looks out over the living room.

The Cesar family’s Christmas tree.   Alexander Myrick

It’s clearly Christmas time in this apartment, but the scents emanating from the kitchen do not smell like turkey and dressing, or roasted ham and mashed potatoes, and certainly not figgy pudding. Here fried garlic, ginger and onion with curry and soy sauce sit heavily in the air, while the faintly bitter scent of tamarind bubbles up from a pot of soup. The sizzle of chicken and pork becomes the background noise heard below the voices of Joyce and Noel Cesar.

In this snug apartment, Joyce and Noel live with their two sons, Julius and Noel Raphael. The whole family has already been in the holiday spirit for longer than most Canadians could conscionably conceive. However, Joyce admits that this year she started decorating a little later than she normally would have liked.

After dealing with some family business in October, Joyce says, “as soon as I arrived home, I started decorating.” Noel impishly interjects, “no, after a week.” Joyce, who wears a festive black T-shirt with a colourful graphic of tangled Christmas lights, looks skyward at her mental calendar and clarifies, “Yes, I arrived back on October 15th and I started decorating the next week.” The minor disagreement and resolution is a common interaction between the couple who playfully argue with one another over small trivialities.

Joyce and Noel go on to explain some of the distinctive Christmas customs and traditions of their native Philippines. She explains that the vast majority of Filipinos start revelling in the holiday spirit on Sept. 1, “with friends and family calling, emailing or messaging each other to wish them a merry Christmas.” Noel elaborates, and says “the Philippines has the longest Christmas season in the world,” and this four-month stretch comes with a moniker, the “ber” months, for September, October, November and December.

As the conversation continues, Joyce describes what she loves most about Christmas: “The family gatherings, the exchanging of gifts, the parties.” Noel, grinning from ear to ear, puckishly butts in again, “Yeah the parties.” Joyce, who had yet to finish her sentence resumes, “and most especially,” while Noel, with great comedic timing exclaims “The food! Don’t forget the food.”

In comparing Christmas back home in Quezon City, Manila, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Joyce confesses that she is slightly saddened by the lack of commitment Canadians have for the holiday. She says, “Canadians don’t have the same spirit that Filipinos do.” This sounds odd at first since many Canadians feel that Christmas is a predominantly white European holiday, but the passion that Filipinos show throughout the “ber” months puts even the most zealous Sunday school teaching, Black Friday shopping, and Christmas village building Canadians to shame.

All comparisons aside, the pair both agree that giving is the foundation upon which Filipino Christmas is built. Without knowing much about Filipino culture, traditions and history, it seemed that this notion of giving was the same rudimentary kind that is espoused by many in Canada. However, as would later be discovered, Filipinos the world over are defined by their resilient disposition and generous nature. These traits have been forged in a history that has seen the Filipino people endure one hardship after another, but they refuse to dwell on these negatives. Instead, the community uses Christmas to showcase these qualities, providing them with the perfect opportunity to give back to those they love most. The couple were even quick to give out an invitation to the Filipino Association of Nova Scotia’s (FANS) annual Christmas party.

When asked about the origins of their Christmas obsession, both Joyce and Noel point to long-standing family traditions. Joyce explains that back in the Philippines she celebrated Christmas as a child in much the same way that her parents did, and so too did her grandparents before them. This four-month long festive and all its customs have seemingly been a part of Philippine culture for decades, but familial traditions alone do not fully explain where this Christmas fixation derives.

‘We really celebrate’

In a black faux leather computer chair sits 84-year-old Dr. Jacobo Rosales Asuncion, A.A. M.D. C.M., or Jake for short. In his living room stands a fully decorated Christmas tree with an eclectic mix of Philippine and Canadian ornaments. Of course a star lies at the very top, but further down in between the usual gleaming ornamental balls hangs some angels as well as elephants, a traditional Filipino decoration, he assures.

A retired Dalhousie University professor of over 30 years, Dr. Asuncion knows full well how much Christmas means to Filipinos. He even founded the Filipino Association of Nova Scotia on Christmas Eve 1964. As he looks out a window, watching the last of the leaves dangle and fall from their branches, the wise doctor offers further insight into the roots of Philippine Christmas.

His voice is soft and warm and he articulates himself methodically, giving each word thought and consideration. “Christmas came to us because the Philippines has long been a Catholic country since the time of the Spaniards, and the Spanish colonial years in the Philippines lasted for 377 years.” This period dates back to 1512, when the famed explorer Ferdinand Magellan hammered a cross into a hilltop on Limasawa Island, in the southern Leyte Gulf, and claimed the archipelago for the King of Spain. As a consequence of this colonial history, Catholicism permeated throughout the more than 7,000 islands, which make up the country. Today, over 80 per cent of the population is Roman Catholic.

Yet, the Spanish do not celebrate for four months, nor does any other predominantly Catholic nation on Earth other than the Philippines. Dr. Asuncion reasons, “because we are Catholic we adapted those practices to our own, and beyond that in the Philippines, when we celebrate, we really celebrate, more than other countries and cultures.” His slow and meticulous conversational style abruptly turns frank. “Let’s face it, we over do it.”

Looking at the tumultuous history of the Philippines, it’s hard to believe that its people would be so devoted to the Christmas spirit rather than being consumed by misery and despair. The nation has after all been a highly coveted strategic property for centuries. An Afghanistan of the Pacific Ocean, sought after by the Dutch in the 17th century, the British in 18th, and then taken by the United States during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Imperial Japan would seize the Philippines during the Second World War, only to be returned to the U.S. at the Battle of Leyte, in the very same gulf that Magellan stood over 432 years earlier.

Having fought and struggled against these foreign invaders, the Philippines finally gained independence on July 4, 1946, but autonomy didn’t end the nation’s troubles. After quelling communist insurgents and reaching some semblance of stability, the country then went ahead and elected Ferdinand Marcos as president in 1965.

Dr. Asuncion even recalls Marcos from his earliest days at the University of the Philippines. “I was studying as a freshman and he was just going out. He was becoming a lawyer then.” Asuncion explains that the Marcos administration “brought both good and bad,” first initiating a series of infrastructure projects. Unfortunately, Marcos was soon suspected of embezzling billions from public funds.

Then in 1972 Marcos declared Martial Law, and received support from the Nixon administration who used the regime as a bulwark against the spread of communism in South East Asia. Marcos would retain kleptocratic control over the country until 1986 when he was overthrown by the People Power Revolution.

Though it was popular and peaceful, the uprising brought little in the way of positive change to the Philippines. Nearly every political administration since has suffered from deep-seeded dishonesty, bribery, exploitation and criminal collusion. These problems have only exacerbated inequality, with rampant drug addiction and drug-related crime as direct results. A series of United Nations reports indicate that the Philippines currently uses more methamphetamine hydrochloride, or “Shabu” than any other country in East Asia, and has an alarmingly high homicide rate to go along with it.

Given the combined tribulations of the past 500 years, it’s understandable to think that all this misery would rob even St. Nicholas himself of Christmas cheer. Yet, the Filipino people continue to celebrate year after year in spite of these hardships, and it is through their eternal positivity and resilient character that the spirit of Christmas endures.

The perceptive doctor explains further, “all these hardships do not affect Filipinos because Filipinos basically are happy people, so they want to celebrate in spite of these difficulties.” In typical Filipino fashion, Dr. Asuncion also wanted to stress the importance of giving and extended another invite to the FANS Christmas party. He reasoned that it would be the perfect setting to observe their true holiday spirit.

However, not all Filipinos will be sharing in the festive joy this Christmas. Right now a violent drug war is taking place in the Philippines and it’s been making international headlines for months. The countries newly elected populist president, Rodrigo Duterte, initiated the war back in July. Since then he has forced a serious bout of bloodletting upon the nation, promising to eradicate corruption, drugs and crime at all cost. While this conflict may seem far away, it still has an impact on the local community right here in Halifax in ways that once again test the character of the Filipino people as well as the enduring spirit of Christmas.

Drug war

On a particularly brisk Saturday afternoon, Joyce, with little Noel close by her side, battles other holiday shoppers in the aisles of the nearest Walmart. Today they are on the lookout for gifts. Some will eventually wind up in stockings back at their cozy apartment, while others are destined for New York City, Australia and the Philippines, where the majority of her closest relatives live.

As she thumbs through a colourful stack of Christmas cards, Joyce discusses the worries and concerns that Filipinos have regarding Duterte’s drug war. She helps clarify the debate both for and against his practices, arguing that while many rightfully oppose Duterte’s methods, others are seeing noticeable improvements in daily life now that rampant corruption is waning. But as the war continues on, Joyce acknowledges that expatriates here are still highly concerned over the safety and security of their loved ones back home during another turbulent time in the country. She even relays a harrowing yet all too common story from a friend and co-worker here in Halifax, whose brother-in-law has been directly implicated in the conflict.

Joyce went ahead and arranged a phone call with her friend who goes by Elmer. As the conversation began, Elmer made it clear that her identity as well as that of her brother-in-law must remain a secret. Though we are over 13,000 kilometres away from Manila, Elmer fears that if her real name is mentioned it could easily reveal the whereabouts of her brother-in-law and could conceivably lead to his death at the hands of ruthless drugs lords. Once she is guaranteed that her identity will be concealed Elmer divulges that her brother-in-law is an admitted drug addict. In order to comprehend the significance of this confession it is crucial to understand the position Filipino addicts now find themselves in.

After his inauguration Duterte immediately followed through on his campaign promises and started a pitiless war against all forms of drug-related crime. He has even advocated extrajudicial killings, calling upon his own citizens to murder suspected criminals, drug dealers and addicts. At this point, in a country of nearly 100 million people, over to 6,000 alleged criminals have been executed (2,102 in police operations and 3,993 at the hands of vigilantes), and over 800,000 addicts have surrendered to state forces.

Elmer’s brother-in-law is one of those addicts and when the violence began to escalate in July, he thought it best to turn himself in. Elmer describes the process, “my brother-in-law went to the police to confess, but once you admit you’re an addict they try to get you to squeal on your dealers.” After pressuring him to give up some names, the state put Elmer’s brother-in-law into a short rehab program, but once he was released he feared that his dealers would seek revenge against him.

This is standard procedure in the Philippines right now, and it leaves addicts and users in a catch-22. If they do not confess they risk jail time or even death, but once they confess, they face swift retribution from their dealers. Elmer goes on to say that her brother-in-law has been running for his life ever since, terrified of his confession’s consequences and with little in the way of police protection.

Elmer assures that he is safe for now, but anxieties stemming from the drug war are likely to persist for the foreseeable future since Duterte himself on Dec. 14 said he will continue his campaign against drugs “until the last day of my term.” In that same meeting with the media, Duterte also demonstrated his commitment to his policies saying that while he was mayor of Davao for two decades, “I killed about three of them… I don’t know how many bullets from my gun went inside their bodies. It happened and I cannot lie about it.” He rationalized his actions explaining “In Davao I used to do it [kill] personally. Just to show to the guys [police] that if I can do it why can’t you.” These statements have since grabbed headlines, while his political opponents and human rights groups say they are justification for impeachment.

With her extended families’ fears at a high point, it would be reasonable to think that these troubles would derail the Christmas celebrations of Elmer and her kin. However, by now it is becoming clear that no matter the circumstances, Filipinos refuse to let their troubles diminish their “ber” cheer. And while her brother-in-law has gone underground, she says that her sister’s Christmas is still going strong. Elmer states that enduring hardships is a fundamental part of what it is to be Filipino. “There may be a lot of trouble in your life, but you go on with life. You don’t let anything shatter you to pieces.”

As the emotional phone call drew to a close, Elmer illustrated that hallmark Filipino resiliency and their dedication to giving, extending yet another invitation to the association’s annual Christmas party. Like Dr. Asuncion before her, she felt that the party would be an excellent opportunity to witness first hand the persistent resiliency and enduring generosity of the whole community.

Filipinos in the end are accustomed to dealing with hardships, but instead of allowing such adversities to overshadow the “ber” months, they use Christmas as the perfect excuse to celebrate and to give back to their loved ones.

Decorations on the Cesar family’s Christmas tree.   Alexander Myrick

It’s been nearly a month since that first stroll through Fairview and by now the mild November air has been replaced with December’s chillier temperatures. As the weather changes so too has the neighbourhood. It’s now evident from the outside that most homes are full of Christmas cheer as candles sit on window ledges, wreaths hang from doors and strings of lights are strewn along eaves. And while Canadians are finally getting into the holiday season, Joyce and Noel Cesar are still enthused by the spirit of Christmas.

With only a few hours to go before the Filipino Association’s annual Christmas party, both Joyce and Noel busy themselves in the kitchen. Those now familiar foreign scents once again fill the air throughout the apartment. Today the couple prepares traditional Filipino dishes of Adobo, Sisig and Pancit to bring along with them. They assure that the party will be modest with the whole of the local community sharing in good food and even better company.

For Filipinos here and around the world Christmas has always been about giving, sharing and celebrating with friends and family. These are the fundamental values that are espoused by Filipinos throughout the “ber” months.

After taking the full width and breadth of their tumultuous history and chaotic present into account, Filipinos everywhere have more than enough reasons to be glum. Yet, they are not and never will be. As Dr. Asuncion said, Filipinos are a happy people. They chose long ago not to let hardships define who they are, especially during Christmas, and can even teach Canadians what the true spirit of the holiday is all about.