A true reminder
Christine Joy Sarsosa, a “Yolanda” survivor from Leyte, turned 14 yesterday, in a tent shelter in Cebu City. By contemporary standards, it was an austere birthday and a bleak Christmas. Her aunt, a single mother of three, told Inquirer correspondent Carmel Loise Matus they would use the food packs distributed by donors as their noche buena, the traditional hearty meal Filipino families prepare on Christmas Eve. A simple meal at an evacuation center: This was what Christmas amounted to for the Sarsosa family—and tens of thousands of families affected by the major calamities that struck the country in the last four months of the year.
The siege of Zamboanga City, the earthquake in Bohol, the six landfalls in central Philippines of Yolanda (and, not to forget, the devastation wrought by Typhoon “Pablo” in southern Mindanao over a year ago): Part of the toll has been the destruction of hundreds of thousands of houses, forcing survivors, such as Christine Joy and her 12-year-old sister Jessica, to seek refuge first with their aunt in Cebu, and then, together with her aunt and her family, with the Philippine Red Cross in the same city.
In Zamboanga, Tausug families staying at the city’s sports-arena-turned-evacuation-center also marked Christmas in simple ways. “We are Tausug but we celebrate Christmas every year,” Radzma Abubakar told reporter Julie S. Alipala of the Inquirer’s Mindanao bureau. Anelda Sarapuddin and her husband are Tausug who celebrate Christmas, too, largely because their grandchildren have grown used in school to marking the Christian holiday. Their house used to carry holiday décor, she said. “Now, all we have hanging in our temporary home are clothes.”
The same might be said of earthquake survivors in Bohol still living in makeshift housing.
We cannot plumb the depth of discomfort or suffering that the survivors displaced by these calamities must endure, but the same Christian feast day even non-Christians mark can allow us a measure of understanding, and perhaps also of acceptance.
In the first place, the Christmas story we read in the Gospel as remembered by Luke tells us that the child whose birth we celebrate was born in destitute circumstances. Too many Christians forget that the “crib” we imagine the baby Jesus in, in our reconstruction of the Nativity scene, was actually a manger—a pretty-sounding word for a sloppy trough where food for animals is placed. Jesus was in a stable, or something like it (Luke does not describe the place itself, but only suggests it), because there was no room available for him and for Joseph and Mary. They had traveled to Jerusalem for a Roman-decreed census, and they were too poor to come early or to get a room.
Secondly, the Christmas story we read in Matthew’s Gospel not only tells us about the cultural burden of a pregnancy out of wedlock; it also features an epilogue, where a vengeful King Herod forces Joseph, Mary and Jesus to flee to Egypt—in other words, they, too, were displaced persons or refugees, living in uncertainty and on other people’s generosity.
Where does the contemporary emphasis on gift-giving come from? The original impulse is remembered by Matthew: “Wise men from the east” came bearing gifts. But even non-Western countries have learned all too well from Western commercialization; for many people around the world, Christmas means a buying spree.
How humbling, then, to read of Christine Joy’s reason for her combined birthday and Christmas wish. Like perhaps millions of other Filipino children, she said she wanted a cell phone. But she needs it, she said, so she can call her separated parents. She has not seen her father in quite a while.
An even more humbling realization comes when we read of what 19-year-old twin brothers Ronron and Ronrey Magdua did in badly-hit Tacloban, over a period of 10 days: Using some P2,000 saved from their earnings from a cash-for-work program, they built a 2-meter-high Christmas lantern in the colors of the Philippine flag.
Perhaps some of us would balk at the expense in cash and labor. Surely the money could have been spent on more urgent things? But Ronrey thought otherwise. “I made many of my neighbors happy. Some of them told me it relieves [them] of their stress,” he told Agence France-Presse. The gift that heals, made lovingly by hand: Is there a better reminder of the true meaning of Christmas?
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