I have to warn you before you continue reading, this has some touchy feelings in it and I can’t promise everything you will read here will be all good. There’s tear-jerking moments in the stories contained in this.
Every year beginning on November 2nd, my holiday decorations go up, my ringtone and text tone change to a Christmas song, and I begin listening to Christmas songs on the regular. People who notice will immediately jump at asking me why I’m already in Christmas mode when there’s still Thanksgiving to come. Christmas is meaningful to me and holds a lot of sentimentality, especially when Thanksgiving is not a big holiday for the family. We don’t even do turkey, we do ham. However, for the family, nothing is as big as Christmas.
A Young J-Mi’s Excitement for Christmas
Many people know that I was not born in the US. I was born in the Philippines and lived there until six years old. What many people don’t know is the Philippines is the country with the longest celebrated Christmas, starting on September 1st until January 6th (sometimes longer). Yep, the stores have Christmas decorations being sold, Christmas trees going up, and what Filipinos call “parol” — an ornamental, star-shaped Christmas lantern traditionally made from bamboo and paper. While it can come in various shapes and sizes, the most common is a star-shape because it represents the star on the night Jesus was born.
Most people also do not know that when my mom and I were living in the Philippines, we couldn’t afford much. We lived in what was called the squatters area on the side of railroad tracks. At the time, my mom and I still lived with my biological father and his parents in their house that was slowly falling apart. Though I was young and unaware of the monetary situation my family and I were in, the energy I had as a child was enough to carry around positivity for those around me. Just like I am now, I was always enthusiastic about my surroundings and and I did my best to share that pure love with those around me in the ways that a child would know how.
Every year that Christmas came around, I knew my parents struggled to find a way to get me gift or even have a small celebration because it was just something we couldn’t afford. We were way below the poverty line. No matter how much my parents were struggling with our financial situation, they put my happiness at the top of their list and made sure I someway, somehow still didn’t feel that we were missing out on so much. As a child, it wasn’t really about materialism for me. With the little money we had, my mom would take me to Mandaluyong City along Policarpio Street. This street had the most beautifully decorated houses with bright Christmas lights all over the outside of the houses, each with their own presentation of music and light coordination. It was wonders for me as a child. I’m sure, though, that if I were to return to the Philippines for a visit and see it, I would still be as mesmerized by it as the six-year-old me was.
A Difficult Transition
When I moved to the US in September 2002, I left the Philippines with Christmas decorations everywhere. When I arrived in the US, I was confused that there was nothing for me to see even remotely related to Christmas. October hit and I didn’t understand why we were dressing up and what the concept of “Trick-or-Treating” was or why we were getting free candy from strangers’ houses. I also didn’t understand what Thanksgiving was, but we were celebrating it anyway. When the Christmas season finally hit, you can imagine how much my heart sank when I didn’t see the same excitement children my age had in the Philippines were compared to those in the US.
Because my mom and I were living in the hustling and bustling city of Los Angeles, we were at the heart of the city where the buildings surrounding us were apartments and skyscrapers. It would take much of a ride to be able to reach the houses that could possibly have their houses decorated with Christmas decorations. In other words, it was a big culture shock for me to witness such a different environment from Christmas time than what I was used to. This was nothing like what I was able to see before, and it took me a while to realize that the US just doesn’t celebrate the way Filipinos do. Because I was starting to understand, I eventually became okay with it.
The cultural differences never stopped my mom and I though. We continued the traditions of decorating our little comfy and cozy studio apartment with Christmas lights, poinsettia garland, and our 3-foot tree that still stands tall. 13 years in the same apartment has had the same tradition for 13 years. Though we don’t decorate from September 1st, my mom has managed to convince me to decorate at least sometime in November. I guess it was a compromise I was willing to go along with, especially because she always ends up fixing the ornaments because I never fit it as well as she does. Probably because she has more practice than I do.
Painful Stories of Santa Claus
Let me preface this part by clarifying, Santa Claus didn’t do anything to me. Second, this is where the tear-jerking or heartbreaking is going to start.
It’s going to seem quite childish, but I believed in Santa Claus up until about the end of middle school — probably until I was about 12 or 13. It was either my first or second Christmas in the US (I was maybe 7 or 8), one of my aunts — who we’ll call Aunt-2 — along with her husband and first born had come home and showed my mom, Aunt-1, and me their family photo with Santa Claus. After seeing it, I turned to my mom and said, “Mom, I want a picture with Santa too!” I hope you can hear a very excited and enthusiastic 7 or 8-year old J-Mi upon reading that sentence. But before my mom could even give me a response, I remember clearly in my head Aunt-2 saying, “To get a picture with Santa, you have to be invited to his house. But to be invited to his house, you have to be a good girl. Only the good girls and good boys get invited to Santa’s house. Santa will send you a letter or call your mommy if you get an invite.”
For all the years I believed in Santa Claus, I waited for my letter saying I was being invited. I waited for my mom to tell me Santa Claus called her inviting us over. Until the year I realized Santa wasn’t real, I continuously believed that I wasn’t a “good girl” because I never got an invite. That no matter how hard I tried to “be good” that year, to Santa, I wasn’t “good” enough.
As every year that I failed to get an invite from Santa Claus, I still continued to write to him – with an early October deadline – where I would tell him what my Christmas wish is that year. Now, because I believed in him and still didn’t know he wasn’t real, I always thought he could get me anything so I would always wish for something expensive. It was an iPod Touch for a solid two years. Yup, expensive.
My family has this tradition where they go on a fully presented scheme making it seem like Santa Claus really came by the place. When we leave for midnight mass at around 11pm, the husbands and children (so my cousins and I) always head to garage and get in the car first, then my mom and aunts follow. They’ve always said they’re just locking up windows, sliding door, and main door. But really, they were prepping the living room/dining area to look like Santa made a mess while he was dropping off presents. Certain food dishes would be moved from the dining table to a stool chair, aluminum foil covers would be lifted from some food, ornaments would be moved and hung on different places but the tree, cookies were half-eaten, milk was half drank, and the “gifts from Santa” were scattered everywhere on the living room floor.
We would return from the midnight mass around 1:30am and the kids were the first to enter the house. One adult with a key would open the door and the kids would be let in. Now because we left at least 10 minutes before my mom and aunts lefts, we saw the living room/dining area set up very nicely. Every child was convinced Santa came by. I mean, we were all gone for the midnight mass together, so the only possibility is that Santa came through the living room and made a mess because he was in a rush. No one had to tell me that Santa Claus wasn’t real. I caught onto the pattern of them coming down to the garage so much later by the time I was in high school. Then, it was hard to get me to believe in Santa Claus. But I was still getting “gifts from Santa” until I was 16, probably.
A little detail I forgot: the gifts always had a letter attached to them that made it seem like Santa had written us a letter with our gifts (it was typed, so there was no recognize any of their handwriting). I still have the letters in an album somewhere — because, again, I believed in Santa for a while. The letters’ details are a bit cloudy in my head. What I do remember is that before we opened Santa’s gifts, my aunts would tell me to read the letter out loud before I opened my gift. The letters always ranged along the lines of saying that I didn’t get the gift I wished for because I had to learn to be less hard-headed or that I needed to be more well-behaved like my younger cousins or Aunt-3 (who’s 5 years older than me). One year, I was given the Nanny McPhee movie with my letter saying that hopefully I learn something about behaving better from watching the movie. Only problem is, I don’t think I was ever as hard to deal with or handle as the children in the Nanny McPhee movie. Not saying I was perfect or I never gave my mom trouble, but everyone has their bad moments too.
Warning (again): these two images are of “Letters from Santa” in 2005 and 2006 (I was 10/11, respectively).
The pain has stuck with me throughout the years, as I still find myself crying when I read both these letters. When reading my 2008 letter to Santa, it was very visible just how much I ached. (Sorry folks, not sharing this because it’s too much emotionally.) How I was able to handle Santa telling me in two ways that I wasn’t a “good girl” as a child is something that, to this day, I’m still confused about. How does a 7-13 year old child cope with being reminded every year both indirectly (not being invited to Santa’s house for a picture) and directly (letters saying I was hard-headed) about how she’s not a “good girl” still have a fighting spirit and still chooses Christmas as her favorite holiday? Still has me stuck.
Christmas: My Favorite Holiday
I have a lot of painful memories in my life, way beyond the aches from Christmas. Somehow, I was guided enough to be strong in being able to cope with those challenges and difficulties. If there’s one thing to be learned from my childhood, it’s that you have to be careful what you tell children at a young age because you don’t know what they will hold on to or what it will bring them to thinking about.
So why, despite the harsh memories, is Christmas still my favorite holiday? Because of the years from ages 1-6 where I got to see Policarpio Street with its lights and it would take my breath away. Because it was the one day a year where it never felt like my relatives and I were just tolerating each other to be in the same room. Because it was the one time, the one moment where it felt like we truly were a family and it wasn’t just a “perfect family” on picture. We were genuine, we were there for the company of our family members, and for all the food we struggled to cook but still enjoyed.
Because of what I had gone through, it was so easy for me to become Ebenezer Scrooge and just hate Christmas while I was at it. I’m going to lie if I tell you that things have improved. Someway, somewhere there is something that goes awry with every Christmas celebration. No matter what I went though, there was some magnet pulling me to still love Christmas.
It’s all the light displays on houses I’m mesmerized by, it’s all the food we only cook during Christmas time and eat after the kids open Santa’s gift, it’s every present that the 15 of us open together from 3am to 7am, it’s every sleepless Christmas Day, it’s every song sung on the karaoke mic, it’s every dish we can’t finish, it’s every laugh from every person. It’s me having so much hope, faith, and love for the people I call “family” despite how much they broke my pure heart as a child and how much I still believe that the relationships between us are going to get better.