Christmas Eve in the Philippines is usually full of fun complete with the traditional foods, midnight mass, lavish gift giving, partying and family reunions, all in the spirit of celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. But due to the devastation caused by typhoon Haiyan or Yolanda to the central part of the country in November of this year, Filipinos are spending Christmas differently, if they celebrate at all. With many families torn apart, homes swept away and communities totally erased how will a nation, just over a month after Yolanda’s aftermath, survive Christmas 2013?
This holiday season, I find it hard to think about Christmas without feeling guilty. Christmas is a time of celebration replete with good food and presents and new things. But as I think of these goodies I cannot help but think of those who have no means or reason to celebrate at all. Survivors of typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in the Visayas or central region of the Philippines were stripped of almost everything they owned and loved. I don’t even have to explain further.
People around the globe have heard about it one way or another. Such was the magnitude of the calamity that struck the Philippines last November that it became an international issue where many countries, big and small, responded to the SOS in many ways possible. In this supposedly merriest time of the year, it is with a completely different perspective that most Filipinos will spend Christmas, with their brothers and sisters in the Visayas in their minds and hearts.
Tacloban City, Leyte-November 16, 2013 Super typhoon Yolanda International name Haiyan destroyed countless homes, flooded cities and towns and left more than a 4,000 Filipinos dead and 1,100 missing after hitting the country on November 8, 2013 On November 8 of this year, super typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) hit the Philippines badly for what seemed like an eternity. Considered the strongest typhoon to ever fall on land in 2013, it came with devastatingly strong winds and storm surges that literally razed communities and villages to the ground leaving some islands uninhabitable in the aftermath. As I am writing, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) pegs the death toll to 5, 818 and nearly 2,000 are still missing. The typhoon left 4.4 million people homeless with an estimated damage amounting to $12.9 billion.
The government says it will take four years for the whole of the affected Central Philippines, about the same size as Portugal, to recover. Yolanda displaced thousands of survivors who fled to Manila and other neighboring cities to escape the chaos, desperation and the stench of death. Survivors are looking for relatives, friends and loved ones up to this moment. Fathers and mothers desperately posting pictures of sons and daughters separated from them during the onslaught of the typhoon are common in social networking sites like Facebook. Stories of survival are not for the fainthearted.
This Christmas Eve in Tacloban, one of the hardest hit cities where almost 5,000 of the confirmed dead are from, Rappler reports that there is no stopping the survivors in celebrating the birth of Christ amidst the ruins of their communities. They put up Christmas trees in the streets where their homes once stood. Hogs are being roasted to be shared later in the “Noche Buena” (a Filipino traditional sumptuous feast after the midnight mass) with fellow survivors instead of relatives and loved ones they have lost during the struggle from the storm.
Heavily damaged churches opened their doors tonight for the last of the 10 pre-dawn masses (“Simbang Gabi” or Midnight Mass) before Christmas Eve, one of the country’s holiday traditions. Although most of the survivors find it hard to celebrate Christmas, they believe that something beautiful will happen after Yolanda and even if it changed their lives, good things will follow in time.
Tacloban City, Leyte – November 16, 2013 A total of 393 cadavers, in black bags, were laid in a mass grave nearby a public cemetery in the northern part of the city in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan Only 10-15 percent of the bodies were identified The Philippine government has released its rehabilitation plan called the Reconstruction Assistance on Yolanda (RAY), which is said to be the biggest reconstruction effort after World War II. Many non-government organizations in the country and abroad also have their relief and rehabilitation efforts focused on the affected areas and on the survivors as well.
As we talked about it in class, I could see in my students’ eyes how affected they were by typhoon Yolanda stories in the news. They wanted to help so badly that nobody complained a bit when asked to sacrifice and donate their snack money for 3 days to the survivors. When asked to bring clothes, canned goods and other goods for donation, the teachers did not have to ask twice. And they brought more than what was expected. Some companies in the country reportedly cancelled their Christmas parties and voluntarily abstained from spending money, opting to donate it to the survivors instead.
Filipinos are generally helpful and sympathetic to those who are in need. We call it the spirit of “Bayanihan” or helping each other out in any way possible. The typhoon may have swept away their homes and their loved ones but the survivors found a family in each other and the people around them, Filipinos and otherwise, proving once more that the indomitable human spirit knows no boundaries in its capacity to love and sympathize in the most trying times.
As for the Filipino people, many in the international community have openly commended us for being resilient. But some of us say no, we do not just spring back- we transform. We have become stronger and more capable of hoping, loving and sharing, which encompass the true essence of Christmas.