Christmas in a ‘balikbayan’ box
While I was growing up, my family’s Christmas celebrations were always very simple. We were five kids of a Navy officer and a schoolteacher, so our limited income would go to necessities like school tuition, groceries, rent and utility bills. We didn’t have much extra money for luxury, travel or grand Christmas celebrations.
On Christmas Day, we’d go to morning Mass, order some pizza, and watch a DVD of a Christmas film. Or we’d drive to our hometown in Cavite City to visit lolo and lola and bond with them.
We had a no-frills and fuss-free Christmas celebration; what was most important was that the family was all together.
One thing, though, that made every Christmas special were the balikbayan boxes sent by our titos and titas every year from the United States.
Most of my mom’s siblings are based either in the United States or Canada. We haven’t seen our cousins in several years. But, despite the distance, they made their love felt with the huge balikbayan boxes they sent.
I suppose most Filipino families have the tradition of opening the “happy box” sent by their relatives abroad. It’s practically a symbol of family love that lives despite being thousands of miles apart.
On Christmas Day, we (my family, lolo and lola, and the few relatives who remained in the Philippines) would gather around the balikbayan box for an almost ceremonious opening.
Someone would always remark, “Wow, amoy America!”
Then we’d peer at the goodies packed inside: clothing, snacks, biscuits, canned goods, moisturizers, books, among others.
Among the variety of items, there would be a special gift for each member of the family, labeled by my titas. A pair of shoes for Alvaro, a backpack for Alexia, Olay moisturizer for my Mama Anne and Tita Petty, Catholic prayer books for lola, medicine for lolo, a nice polo shirt for tatay…
It’s moving how our relatives thought of what gift to get for each one of us, even though they haven’t seen us in person for a long time.
Once, they also sent us a ready-to-assemble kit for a Christmas gingerbread house, complete with piping icing and a variety of candies: gumdrops, chocolate balls, jelly beans, sprinkles, licorice sticks — we probably ate most of them before we finished building the house.
Even if we spent the Christmas season in our tiny military apartment in Camp Aguinaldo, we had the time of our lives playing with the gifts we had received.
My most favorite ones were the books sent by Tita Agnes, who’s been a teacher in California for more than 30 years. She’d send us titles that nourished my love for reading — those written by J.K. Rowling, Jerry Spinelli, Lois Lowry, Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary.
There were enough books to fill a small library, and these books were an important part of my childhood. Looking back, I realize how blessed I was to have read such a lovely collection of
As I reached adulthood, I realized the sacrifice and self-giving involved in putting this balikbayan box together.
One of the few times my cousins came to visit for the holidays, we were in our grandparents’ house, and I was reading the book “Shadow Children,” given by my tita.
A cousin saw me and said, “I was wondering where my ‘Shadow Children’ collection went!”
That’s when I realized: My titos and titas were also giving their own personal possessions as gifts.
In recent years, when we’d open the box, my mom would comment, “Your tita really is so generous to give us these gifts.”
By then, I was already old enough to know about the American economy, and how much it must have cost my titos and titas to prepare those boxes for us.
To an outside observer, a balikbayan box may just seem like a collection of imported goods. But for us, it is the tangible manifestation of love, concern and sacrifice of our family abroad.
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Lex Adizon, 26, is a teacher based in Bacolod City.
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