The Greatest Gift of All
Vanessa Joy Domingo | All photos courtesy Vanessa Joy Domingo
I walk off the plane and onto the jet way—greeted with Christmas ornaments and lights, and ribbons and bells galore. It’s November 11th and it is already Christmas in the Philippines. I smile at the holiday cheer, get through customs and head to the baggage claim area of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila. Singers dressed in green velvet, joined by violin players sing their hearts out—Pasko! Pasko! Pasko na naman muli. Tanging araw na ating pinakamimithi … Although there were no carolers—Laoag International Airport was also decked out in holiday décor—colors of green, red, and gold shimmering against its brick walls and columns.
The Christmas season is indeed the season many Filipinos anticipate throughout the world. I remember throughout my childhood that the greatest time of the year would be when the Christmas tree was up. My sister Brenda and I would stare in awe at the blinking lights of the tree—and wait to hear each Christmas song play. Later, it would be the two of us watching our younger sister Allison be captivated by the tree’s holiday spell. My parents would have the tree set up as early as late October. As the years passed and as we grew older, our love for the Christmas season never faltered.
My sister Brenda and I walk into Robinsons Place—Ilocos in San Nicolas. It had been at least 10 years since we were in the Philippines together. The mall is filled with shoppers touting the items of their shopping spree. We find Christmas décor everywhere throughout the mall and take our souvenir photo at one of the mall’s well-known photo op stops. We laugh as we try on some of the holiday headwear at the Expressions craft store on the second floor. There are fun glasses with reindeer antlers attached. Matching pairs that don Santa Claus on one side and a Christmas tree on the other. This shop has placed Christmas décor garlands, lights, and wrapping paper out front coaxing customers into the Christmas spirit.
A few days later—my husband and I ride the bus to Baguio City. The bus jostles as it bustles through the winding roads, the cold air and foggy mist. The crisp air touches my face. For the next two days, Baguio Holiday Villas becomes our home.
The bright display of the Christmas tree shines against the lobby’s orange walls. A toddler of a few guests walks over, entranced by the décor. We find our way to visiting Baguio’s Tree Top Adventure Park and take a cable ride into its canopy—not before taking our silly Christmas photo, of course. In the evening, we find ourselves at the night market. Workers are hard at work, turning Burnham Park into a winter wonderland. Garlands of lights hang from the trees. On our way home, the bus takes a rest stop at the Sisters Royal Bibingka in Bantay. The bake shop is also covered in festive décor. The lights shining brightly against the dark night remind me of feeling at home, as the cashier places the warm box of bibingka in my hands. Although I love to eat, we’re gifting this for our grandma and aunt for taking care of us during our stay.
On the sunnier days of our trip, Christmas was evident throughout Ilocos Sur. San Juan proudly displays a tall Christmas tree next to their Municipal Hall. The Vigan tindaan had displays of Christmas parols, all different colors and different types. I asked one of the vendors how long she had been selling these. She replies shyly saying “Forever. I can’t remember how long.” Her weathered hands bring out another load of parols to display.
In the spirit of gift giving, Mark and I decide to help his father’s elementary school by purchasing a printer for the teachers and students to use. We arrive at Amarosa Elementary School. Class is in session. The principal kindly takes us on a tour of the campus. The students have made parols out of recycled items.
traws, spoons, bottle caps, plastic bottles, all shaped to create a star. So creative and such great craftsmanship from these growing minds. The children that received the backpacks from earlier this summer, sing us Barney’s “I love you, you love me” song to thank us for their school supplies. No words could explain how the experience touched our hearts.
I travelled to the Philippines because of my aunt’s passing. Despite missing her and feeling saddened by this unfortunate event—I couldn’t help but feel we were all surrounded by her love. She loved celebrating and being with family. Her warm spirit and loud cheers made everyone smile. During Christmas, she would make her way through the house, jokingly asking us what we got her for Christmas. In this moment, she gave us the greatest gift of all this Christmas season. An opportunity to be together amongst family members we haven’t seen in as many as 10 years. Grieving for the loss of her presence brought us closer as a family and allowed us to reconnect to our roots. It gave us the appreciation of each other’s company. I hope everyone can enjoy the same warmth and company this Christmas season. I will always remember her and her love for family and celebration. Rest in peace and love, my dear Aunty Resy Viloria Villalun (May 16, 1976—November 8, 2019).
Vanessa Joy Domingo is a graduate of Maui High School and is currently attending University of Hawai‘i Maui College. She is employed with Coldwell Banker – Wailea Village as a Realtor and is the 2018 Miss Maui Filipina. When she has free time, she loves to go fishing, go to the gym and practice aerial silks. She volunteers her time throughout the community with the Maui Filipino Community Council, Binhi at Ani, Read Aloud America, and Maui High School Foundation. She realized she enjoys life in the Philippines more so because she could live off of roll cakes from Bakers PH, fish cake, isaw, bbq sticks, and empanadas everyday. She and her husband Mark hope to one day see a Mang Inasal restaurant here on Maui.