San Francisco Bay Area—Thanksgiving is a bigger deal here, perhaps because it’s not a religious festival and everyone can celebrate it, but for most Filipinos, Christmas will always be the holiday of the heart.
No matter how long an immigrant has lived in the US, the Philippines will always be home. Filipinos of the first generation here refer to visiting the country as “uuwi”—I am going home. It is easy to strike up conversations with fellow Pinoys on the BART, bus, and Ubers, and the question often asked is, “Kailan ka huling umuwi?”—When did you last go home? And everyone agrees Pasko is the best time for a visit, the time of cool weather, Simbang Gabi, and colorful, winking parols.
Pasko sa Pilipinas holds such strong associations of family and motherland that Filipinos in America are quite sentimental around this season. Heidi, who has lived in the Bay Area for 30 years, says that family and friends back home are always on her mind. So she collects things for them year-round that she can ship back to the Philippines in a balikbayan box around Christmas time. And Tony, who works for LBC forwarders in this area, says that practically all the goods that are sent over are simple and practical.
Most of these items are those that might be pricey back home or not readily available, but affordable here when bought by the bulk at warehouse stores like Costco. Spam, in all its variants, and other canned goods; and toiletries, shampoo and conditioner in giant bottles, soap by the case. Boxes may also be crammed with towels, bedsheets, curtains and other home linens; clothes, handbags, and shoes bought on sale; homeware, toys, electronic gadgets; and other things that are desired or deemed useful.
The boxes and their contents are also powerful symbols of love and sacrifice, of memory and longing, and thus have immense meaning in our culture. Therefore whatever makes it easier and more convenient for this tradition to be maintained will be much appreciated by senders and recipients.
One such break is the tax exemption on balikbayan boxes beginning this Christmas Day. Boxes containing personal goods with a value of P150,000 ($3,060) or less, sent by qualified Filipinos abroad, will be exempted from tax.
This is in line with the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act (Republic Act No. 10863) and its implementing rules and regulations, Customs Administrative Order 05-2016, signed by the Bureau of Customs and the Department of Finance.
“Qualified Filipinos” under this law are everyone who is abroad and holds a valid Philippine passport, whether as overseas workers or permanent residents, or out on student, tourist, or investor visas, except those who have become citizens of another country.
Before the CMTA was signed into law by President Benigno Aquino III on May 31 this year, the cap was at P10,000 ($200) worth of goods per box. Because the cap has been raised significantly, the number of boxes that may be sent each year has been limited to three.
This is good news for Filipinos abroad who want to ensure that their loved ones have an enjoyable holiday celebration this year.
Another way that first-generation Filipinos celebrate Christmas here is by sharing traditions with succeeding generations—those who did not grow up in the Philippines—in an effort to keep the spirit of the Filipino Christmas alive and strong among the community.
For instance, a Fil-Am publication, the Asian Journal SF, carried this week a supplement about Filipino Christmas traditions, with a list of traditional noche buena delights—hamon, leche flan, and queso de bola among them.
Another tradition, Simbang Gabi, is now a common practice in churches where there are large Filipino populations, while colorful winking capiz shell parols, brought all the way from the Philippines, immediately identify a Filipino family’s home in the suburbs.
Culture is such a huge part of us that we bring it with us wherever we go. And so here in the US, my family will be celebrating Christmas as Filipinos, and every bite and every sip will remind us of the loved ones we’ve left behind.
To all my readers, thank you for your support. I wish you and your families happy holidays, and may this be a time of peace, love, and much laughter for us all.
Dr. Ortuoste is a California-based writer. Follow her on Facebook: Jenny Ortuoste, Twitter: @jennyortuoste, Instagram: @jensdecember