Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Advent series 2022 entitled “Advent from the Margins,” where we’ve asked writers to submit reflections on what waiting for Christ means in their context.
Christmas season here in the Philippines starts on September 1. Every year, like clockwork. The difference between August 31st and the first of September is, quite literally, night and day. Walk into your local Pure Gold supermarket, SM shopping mall, or even your nearest sari-sari store on September 1st and you’ll see just how literal this difference is—holiday wreaths snaking through the merchandise, strings of blinding lights strangling helpless inanimate victims, and of course, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” blaring nonstop at inconvenient decibel levels.
The speed and meticulousness with which Filipinos can ex nihilo the Christmas Spirit into a space would put even Will Ferrell to shame. We have a nickname for our Christmas season here in the Philippines: the “BER Months” (referring to the four months leading to Christmas Day that end with “-ber,” which also exemplifies the quirky Filipino penchant for deriving nicknames from suffixes). When I first moved to the Philippines a few years ago, the American in me was quick to roll my eyes at the sight of Christmas trees, nativity scenes, and holiday sales while December 25th was over 3 months away (well, maybe not at the sales). But, over time, I’ve come to embrace the BER Months and even started a tradition of yelling out my window “It’s almost Christmas!” in my Filipino-American tagalog for all innocent bystanders to hear (if you follow me on Instagram, you can watch me do this every day from September 1 to December 25).
This year, I caught myself actually looking forward to September 1 and getting to experience the BER Months all over again (though it also helps that these are the “coolest” months of the year for those of us living this close to the equator). I’ve even learned to appreciate this eagerness to faithfully observe the happiest time of the year as not just a love for, and competence in, finding excuses to celebrate, but also as an act of resistance against all that would rather have us not celebrate. In a place where too many live with too little, the irony of how joyful my neighbors are when the BER Months come around again feels like both a gentle rebuke and an expectant invitation to get over myself and join them.
If the Philippines has the happiest (and longest) Christmas season in the world, then the Filipino working-class knows where the real (Christmas) party is at. Together with my NGO, Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor, I’ve been living in and serving one of these communities since 2019. My time here has been filled with everything from culture shock and existential crises to sweat stains and American temper tantrums. Despite all the challenges that anyone from outside this context would experience when displacing themselves inside it, I’ve also had much to receive. One of these gifts is in getting to celebrate with my neighbors. Whether it’s at birthdays, baptismal celebrations, or Christmas parties, I’ve experienced something sacred in the Filipino love for partying when it has so little to work with.
My first Christmas Eve in Riverside (the colloquial name of the neighborhood I live in) was like New Year’s Eve meets the 4th of July in the middle of a war. There were fireworks in the sky, on the ground, and in people’s hands. Everyone was playing their own curated Christmas music playlist at max volume that all harmonized into a symphony of deafening noise. The food, for once, was more than enough, and the alcoholic beverages were as plentiful as they were at Cana. And amidst all the celebratory chaos, against the backdrop of substandard housing and systematic marginalization, were the infectious, resilient smiles of my neighbors.
Going house to house and happily greeting each other with a “Maligayang Pasko!” (Merry Christmas) felt like a glimpse of something otherworldly, like we were close to the sort of place that Jesus so scandalously alluded to in his parables.
Of course, there is no shortage of things to lament when living in places like Riverside. But let us not forget that there is also so much joy among the overlooked and forgotten—joy that can remind even the most jaded, burnt out, and disillusioned how to smile again. In this Season of Advent, may we simply come and see what this joy along the margins looks like. After all, when our world is as broken as it is, how can we not look for more excuses to celebrate, even if it means starting the Christmas season as early as September? Either way, you can find me continuing to yell out my window, “Mga Kababayan, malapit na ang Pasko!” (Fellow people of my land, Christmas is almost here!)
Timothy Sean Ignacio is a 2nd-generation Filipino-American from California’s Central Valley who moved to Manila in 2018 to work for Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor. Rather than call himself a “missionary,” he is reclaiming the Tagalog word balikbayan (one who returns to their land) as an act of spiritual decolonizing and an expression of solidarity with his kababayans (people of the same land) in the Philippine archipelago. Using the alias “ITM” (reiteration of the Tagalog word itim, meaning “dark”), he also uses his passions as an emcee/hip-hop artist and creative in hopes that his music, vlogs, and writings can inspire others to both reclaim their own identities and form meaningful connections back to their motherlands. For more of his content, check out his music as “ITM” on all major streaming platforms, his vlog series “Balikbayan Not Missionary” on YouTube, and his social media handle: @sobrangitm (Instagram, Facebook, TikTok).