The last Christmas that my whole family was together was in 2017. Since then, we have suffered losses. The first one was our grandmother in 2018 who passed away in September. And, then in 2019, it was our cousin Chris, unexpected and shocking. This year, in February, my Auntie Dina finally lost her fierce, long battle with cancer. Our family’s whole world change and then the outside world changed as well. Before we could come together to say goodbye, the pandemic shut everything down. And, then COVID took Milady away, who wasn’t related us to blood but by soul and choice.
In the middle of all this, it’s easy for us to think about all the Christmases that came before this one. All of the times that we had filled with family and tradition. My family has a bunch of traditions- created over time, carried across oceans and immigrations and evolving out of necessity. Christmas central used to be at my house with a huge Christmas tree, decorated with ribbons and lights and the north star Christmas topper that Auntie Dina bought us. When Nanay became ill, we traveled to her and made sure that stockings were still filled and added Christmas “themes” that the whole family participated in. We had a superhero Christmas, one where we all dressed in onesies, one where we wore statement t-shirts and donned our most outlandish for our Crazy Rich Asian Christmas. When we lost Chris in October of 2019, we had a Star Wars Christmas in his honor. It was complete with jedi light sabers but all I could think of was that the force would have really be with us had he been there. Last Christmas, we turned a hotel into our own Christmas lane and turned its lobby into our own photo studio.
With such incredible memories, it was hard to think about Christmas this year. Then, I spoke to a good friend. Maitet reminded me- for migrants quarantine is their everyday life- at least at the beginning . In their islands, Pilipino families start to think about Christmas around July, the first of the department stores already starting to decorate. In their new countries, the holiday remains a big deal. There is simbang gabi, or midnight masses and noche buena, a feast of Pilipino foods. But, in their new countries, many migrants are working hard in jobs that do not stop for the holidays like the nurses around the world where Pilipinas make up over 60% of labor. It made me think about this and about my parents and aunts and uncles who did not always get to spend the holidays together.
The tree that had been sitting bare in the middle of my living room stared back at me. Each time I tried to decorate it, I felt the absence of my loved ones acutely. But, even if I was sad, the holiday would happen and there were children, namely my 12 year old niece who needed us to make Christmas nice (if this is hard for us, imagine how hard it is for kids!). So, I mustered. In the middle of unstringing lights, unspooling ribbon, unearthing years through each special ornament, I also began to undo the knot inside me that grew from all the loss, all the empty spaces of this Christmas. It didn’t make everything better, but it made it a little easier to breathe and to see what it is that is still here.
This Christmas was the smallest I’ve ever had in my life. It was also the quietest. But, this quiet was not the lonely kind. It was the kind that came with rest, or at least stopping long enough to know you are not still going. It was the kind that you had when you reflected, maybe similar to meditation- the kind with singing bowls and mantras or the kind with rosary beads dancing one by one between your fingers, the kind of quiet when you could hear echoes of the past and maybe even understand the sharper edges of what is really important in the future.