Christmas, The Philippines & Family

morning01It’s seven in the morning right now. But thanks to some jet-lag I’ve been wide awake since three o’clock.  I’m sitting in my comfortable robe enjoying the gentle current of warm air from the central air unit while the thermostat on the patio tells me it is only thirty-five degrees fahrenheit outside here in Southern California in late November.

I arrived in California six days ago but still no luck convincing my body I’m not in the Philippines. I guess my body went into denial. Still hoping to wake up and open the door to see coconut trees outside my place as the warm air embraces the beginning of yet another beautiful day. But no. Instead I made the trip across the planet to spend time with my Mom and adult kids.

They are the only reason I made this trip. A trip I’ve made three years in a row now from the Philippines for the last two months of the year. My Mom spoils me with a big country breakfast in the morning. In the evening she makes one of my favorite Tex-Mex dishes to perfection each time. I get used to wearing pants and shoes again temporarily, as well as a light windbreaker that has “Philippines” embroidered across the back with its national colors and yellow star. Several times I’ve had conversation with Filipinos in the USA because of that jacket. Usually with those who have moved to a new life in California. While they enjoy the benefits of working and living in the States, they often pine for the beauty of the shores and provinces they once enjoyed in the Philippines. I know how they feel for I feel the same way.

I come to the USA each year to be with my family. That’s basically it. I also visit with local friends in the area since I’m here. But I’m not here to see Disneyland or much else that I’ve already seen over my forty-nine years I’ve spent in California. Seen it, done it.. several times.

When I was a kid, it was all about the presents and family at Christmas. I have eight aunts and uncles and with all my cousins meeting at my Grandma’s for Christmas Eve.. it was a huge event. We’d often still be opening presents until three in the morning and spend the following day enjoying amazing food together with the collective family.

As the years went by, each family began to have their own Christmas as their families got bigger. In my
own family we often had about fifteen or more of us gathered at my parent’s home. Everybody got everyone a gift. The tree was surrounded with gifts. And then we made a transition about fifteen years ago and began doing a Gift Exchange. Everyone was assigned as a ‘Secret Santa’ to one person in the family, making it easier financially on everyone and a nicer gift for each. We’ve been doing it that way ever since. Although the little kids still always score with presents from just about everyone.

And then came 2012. My first Christmas away from family in my entire life. I was newly relocated to the Philippines, living on the island of Mactan. I went to the island of Bohol and spent Christmas day with my girlfriend’s brother and his family. And this began my education in how different the holiday was spent in the Philippines.

With each successive year I learned more about Christmas in the Philippines. I spoke with Filipinas 1931446_570367553111413_7084949396827317777_nabout how they celebrated with their families. I noticed that the malls began with Christmas music and decorations as early as September 1st. But I also noticed that for the most part, most of the Filipino people I knew were not buying presents and doing the “shopping thing”. When Christmas Day came it often meant either the family going to Mass at the local church or having a home fiesta with family. It wasn’t centered around gift giving. Many simply didn’t have the budget for it.

And so it was more of a family-time together. Looking back on the huge gathering of family when I was a kid, I see it totally different now. Back then I was hoping to get whatever gift I’d asked for. But really, it was having all my cousins around, the food and hearing my aunts and uncles laughing and talking that I really appreciate about those times. I hardly even remember now the gifts I got. I mostly remember the time we spent together as a family.

I’m not against gift-giving. And while Christmas can get a bit commercialized in any society, it’s nice to have a good excuse to give something to someone you care about. But really, I’ve reached the point several years ago where I truly don’t concern myself with any gift I will get at Christmas. Last year I was
dscf4383 here in California for the holidays and as usual my sons and their one cousin joked and goofed around while my Mom served up a great dinner and we opened presents around the tree. Paper wrapping was tossed at each other, pictures were taken and toys were assembled for the smaller grandkids. It was fantastic to just ‘be together’.

That was in December. Little did we know that ten months later we would lose my nephew in a fatal car accident only half a mile from where we’d previously spent Christmas. It was hard for us to take. It was seemingly impossible to comprehend for the longest time.

They say that the value of a thing is based on it’s rarity. Such as gold or diamonds. The good relationships one can have with their close family and friends is the same. Not everyone is close with their family. Not everyone has close friends. And for those who do, there is no guarantee that they will be here tomorrow. The time we have is a rarity. It is a window and we have no idea how long it will last from one year to the next.

So when people ask me, “Do you miss the Philippines when you visit USA for the holidays?“, I always tell them, “I do miss the Philippines, but I make the trip for my family.”

Like any family, we have disagreements at times. But we always respect our bond as family. And it’s the same with my close friends. We may not see eye to eye on social or political issues. But the close friends I have shared bread or thoughts with, we see past our differences and maintain respect for each other. Why? Because true family and friendship is a rare commodity. It has value to me. And they show it has value to them by their actions. Some of my friends I’ve known since high school. Other friends I’ve met and bonded with in the Philippines. My sons, my daughter.. they’ve each charted a path of their own and I respect the decisions they make. My intents and hopes are always for their good. And my Mom, she is truly a saint. Everyone that has met her soon realizes how kind and wise she is. She’s not only proven herself to be a survivor, she’s also been the shoulder of compassion for hundreds of people when they needed it most.

When I am in the USA, I think about my girlfriend and other Filipinas I have known. I know that while Idscf4361-03 am with my family in the USA, they are with their own families and strengthening the bonds they have with them. I used to feel bad that their ‘Christmas’ wasn’t as material-oriented as what I grew up knowing. But I don’t see it that way any more. So many Filipinos I have had the privilege to enter their home have shown me that they understand the bond of family. Some may say it’s a strong bond to a fault. But no one can deny it’s an important bond and more valuable than exchanging the latest gadgets wrapped in shiny paper.

When I was a kid, I used to get a bit bummed if I got clothes for Christmas. I wanted something that lit up and flew around the yard. But now, after all I’ve seen and observed over the years, a new shirt and having my loved ones around me one more year is more than I could ask for.

philippines survival guide advice expats

Author: Reekay V.

Since 2012 I’ve been traveling through various islands of the Philippines as a full-time Expat and spent 1999 living in Vietnam.

Share with me my ongoing adventures of life in the Philippines. Hopefully you find my observations helpful in your own adventures.
— Reekay


  1. An excellent article on Christmas – in SoCal and in the Philippines. Read it from the first word to the last, eagerly. I share your sentiments, Henry.
    I am glad that you are enjoying the best of both worlds and have found true happiness everywhere. Let it be so.
    One small request from me: Consider taking Lyn with you on one trip home to meet with your mom and kids. Let her also feel privileged to be among your family members and also enjoy the wonders of the USA.
    Thank you very much for this wonderful article. And God bless you both forever.

    1. Thanks. Unfortunately, the USA doesnt have a short term visa available to allow her to visit. 🙁 But I know she is enjoying each holiday with her own parents while I am with mine. 🙂

      1. Good for you that you have family and it’s not all commercialized. It is unfortunate that we can’t get Filipinas to come here without going through the K-1 visa process which comes with a 3 months shot-gun wedding requirement attached. I hear some other western countries are more lenient in this respect, which makes sense as marriage is generally not advisable with today’s laws. Happy Solstice Season.

  2. Great article and highlights a dilemma we have to when trying to acclimatise to moving overseas. I miss my family back in the UK and especially at Christmas. And just as with the US, there is no easy visa arrangement to take my wife over to the UK. So it is very unlikely that my wife will ever see my family. Something she asks for often but I cannot afford the cost anymore without having to save for 5 years for a 2 week holiday as it has got so expensive!

    But as you say, as time goes on gifts are not the essence of the occasion for the adults. They are more the party piece for what is the reall essence of it, the family social gathering and seeing face to face those we care for. And sharing the little jokes and conversations that do not happen from afar.

  3. while I understand the desire to be with your family, what about your girlfriend. She spends Christmas with you. Does she get consideration?

    1. I am with my g/f, Lyn, more than 10 months out of the year. I can’t be in two places at the same time so, the best compromise is that I spend about five weeks with my family I don’t see the majority of the year.

    2. My plan is to spend 8 to 10 months out of the year in PI. The other 2 to 4 months back in the states. My plan is to go on road trips to get to know & see the countryside and visit my kids wherever they live at that time. My wife and I both can travel together, but if tgat was not the case, in sure 5 weeks would not be too much of a compromise to be away from my wife and see my kids.

  4. This will be my 18th Christmas and New Year’s here in the Philippines and I wouldn’t rather spend it anyplace else this is truly a paradise and for those that are spending Christmas in the new years in the United States and have never experienced it in the Philippines have no idea what they’re missing …. for those of you that haven’t if you ever get a chance come on over

  5. I have spent a christmas with my wife and her family in the Philippines once, two years ago. I have also spent Christmas in south Mexico in a village when still together with my ex-wife.
    Both places very similar. Poor communities have less gifts but more love to share. I was not rich growing up, so our gifts as kids where not extravagant or expensive either. What I can say is that having the people you love together with you is important. It is good to share your time with those that are still around. It is a blessing.

  6. Awesome story Reekay. I often long to permanently move to my Pinoy paradise. We have house and great property there in the Vasayas but earning income there is rough and my wife has gotten very use to her US income and both our daughters dig that American “stuff”.
    I love reading your stories .
    MERRY Christmas from eastern Kentucky and Negros Oriental!!!

  7. When my wife first came here (US) she kept complaining about how bad the Christmas was here compared to her home (Negros Oriental). I would often counter “how could it feel like Christmas if it’s 80 degrees?!?”
    I’ve since spent 2 Christmases in our little town in Neg.Or (which is almost identical to my little town in eastern Ky.) and I must confess I agree with my wife Christmas are better there .
    Actually I think its because it’s 80 degrees.

  8. Just What we need! These days there are so many distractions for our attention, concern, and yes, our compassion and empathy, “if we truly, can engage in it”. I feel we mostly “are” and feel powerless to acknowledge our fellow human beings within all those moments we wish to relate. Yet without conviction and that understanding, we can do little about. Moreso, are we consumed by a wish to wrap and unwrap the next greatest attempt at happiness? Has it blinded us to other realities? Could their strife be of our own doing with our celebrating the latest 7 billion dollars, Black Friday?

    I have been reading you for some months now in the background and enjoy your perspectives. Your story has brought at least one person home again. A story about meaningful values. So glad for you to have met Lyn. I wish only to be half as lucky as you! I will pass this article to all my family because it brings back that long lost feeling of solidarity. I can only hope it will invoke for at least the humans I keep close, that simple reminder ” We are a family”. “We are as one” And that our focus should be on that rebounding at Christmas, which n my view it is paramount. Peace and love, and Merry Christmas Reekay 🙂

  9. Interesting to read. I’ve been living in the Philippines for about 8 months now and as Christmas approaches the felling of being cut of from family and friends back home has grown quite a bit.

  10. well written article. I’ve been living in the Philippines fro about 8 months and as Christmas approaches the feeling of being cut of from friends and family grow larger.

  11. Hi Henry, Ive been following your blog youtube and podcasts for a few months now. This will be my second holiday away from my family since moving to PH two years ago. I feel your frustration regarding not being able to bring my g/f and our daughter to the US to meet my family due the visa issue.

    1. Yah. I’m surprised how many inquiries I get asking, “Why didn’t you take Lyn?” (my g/f) Simple.. there is no viable short-term visa for Fiipinos into the USA. There’s the Class B Visa.. but good luck getting that. She has to show evidence of wealth in the PH, plus a history of travel without overstay to other countries.. and even then there’s slim chance it gets approved.

      But, I spend the majority of the year with her and 6 weeks or so with family in Calif. It works out okay. 🙂

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