The best Christmas
Christmas is the most awaited season of the year. “Christmas lanes” are now open. Christmas promos are plentiful in the urban shopping centers. Christmas parties are being held. Christmas presents are being given and received. Indeed, Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year.”
Like most of us, I make sure that I come home for Christmas. It’s the best time to be with family and friends. One remembers and looks forward to indulging on the food served during noche buena: roast pig, ham, menudo, spaghetti, cake, fruit salad, to name just a few. And of course, who will not enjoy the Christmas presents from our godparents?
In my hometown, we observe the traditional activities of Christmas. The simbang gabi is something people devotedly attend despite the temptation to stay in bed and go on sleeping. Christmas carols fill the air as children go from one house to another for coins or candies. Christmas reunions are held left and right, day in and day out. And our kababayan, whether from Manila or abroad, come home for Christmas with all their pasalubong, to the delight of many.
That’s how I clearly remember Christmas in Guiuan, Eastern Samar. Until November 8 dawned. Until the supertyphoon hit.
“Yolanda/Haiyan” swept through Guiuan—and left nothing unchanged. Our houses and schools were destroyed, our church was ruined, our hearts were broken. It was a surprise for all of us because we were used to being tagged “typhoon-prone area” but emerging almost unscathed. We were a “waterproof”—some even said “stormproof”—people.
But Yolanda changed all that, and crushed all our dreams. We, the people of Guiuan, were very proud of our town. Many times we were called a “booming” town. Our tourist attractions were being developed. Our markets were never empty, with the freshest fish available at low prices. Our streets were among the cleanest in the province. Our local government unit has been awarded with the seal of good housekeeping. We recently opened a new terminal for tourists and locals. Our Immaculate Conception Parish Church, one of the oldest churches in the Philippines, is a true national heritage, a venerable testament to our faith as a people.
We achieved these milestones after so many years of hard work. We, the people of Guiuan, relied on our industry, diligence, resilience and faith. We banked on our trustworthiness and willingness to be of service to others, on our goodwill and good hearts. And now, we are at a loss. We are wondering if we still can see the Guiuan we knew amidst the ruins we see every day. We ask ourselves: Is there hope in the ruins? Is there light in the darkness?
I went home to Guiuan a week after Yolanda swept through it. And I knew there is great cause for us to hold on and never give up. I looked at the Philippine flag hoisted and dancing in the breeze, and I could say there is hope. I watched the menfolk busy cleaning their yards and retrieving what could be saved of their belongings, and I could say there is hope. I observed the children playing and trying to get back to their accustomed routines, and I could say there is hope. I witnessed our professionals—our nurses, doctors, teachers, and policemen—performing their duties in the best way they could, and I could say there is hope. I attended a Mass in front of our ruined church, and saw the faithful continuously crying out to God, praying for everyone else’s welfare, and I believed there is hope.
And now, Christmas is almost here. The simbang gabi have started, but unlike last year we are having the Masses outside the church. Our noche buena, if there is one, will perhaps be the simplest in our lifetime. Christmas carols may still be heard, but there are no more coins and candies to give, just the humble desire to proclaim that Christ’s birth is at hand. Whatever Christmas get-together there is will not be a party but a modest occasion to comfort one another.
Despite all these, I can say that we will have the best Christmas ever. The Mass on Christmas Eve will not be about pomp and spectacle but about Christ whose birth we are celebrating. Our noche buena will not center on the food served but, most important, on a reunion with the people we love. Our Christmas carols will not be about what we will receive but about what we can give. Our Christmas party will not be about new clothes or gifts but about a celebration of friendship, of brotherhood, and of unity.
Above all, we will celebrate Christmas as close as possible to the first Christmas. Mary and Joseph were anxious about where to stay for the night, where Mary would deliver the Child. No one gave them a room to stay in, just a stable where animals were gathered. No bed. No food. No grand gifts. Just themselves. In peace and silence.
Most of us in Guiuan will have the same. Most of us have no houses in which to celebrate Christmas. Most of us have no food to put on the table. Most of us have no material gifts to give and receive. But we have one another. Our families, friends and other loved ones are present. We, the people of Guiuan, are here and will become living witnesses to how the Emmanuel came and touched our lives in the most special way.
There is hope and light amidst the rubble and darkness. We have Christ. And whether we have gifts or none at all, what matters most is that we will continue to celebrate Christmas because it is not about us but about Christ, who came to this world and lived with us. It is about the Emmanuel, the God-with-us, who, before and after Yolanda, is present among us and continues to assure us that everything will turn out fine.
My younger brother has urged us to celebrate Christmas in Manila this year. My parents and I disagreed. I told him: “The best Christmas this year is in Guiuan. I will choose no other place than here.”
Roel Joe E. Abonal, 21, is studying at the Nativity of Our Lady College Seminary in the Diocese of Borongan. He says that after completing his bachelor’s degree in marketing management at Adamson University, he decided to return to the seminary and pursue his priestly formation.
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