At Christmas, we long to be home during this festive and joyous occasion. But for various reasons, some of us are left without a choice, stuck somewhere cold and far. Seven kababayans share with us their first Christmases away from their loved ones, away from home.
Lost in Paris
I was undocumented when I came to Paris in June of 2007. The original plan was to go to my sister and my father who were based in London. But things didn´t go as planned as I didn’t have the legal documents to be able to enter the UK. I was stuck in Paris without a job and friends. I was depressed and I didn’t know what would happen to me. The only person in my family who knew about my situation was my sister who was sending me money for my daily sustenance.
That Christmas eve, my Filipino flatmates invited me to go to their church for noche buena. But I had other plans. I didn’t want to offend them so I told them I had already said yes to some friends of mine. The truth was I wanted to celebrate on my own, in my church. So I got dressed and left the flat with them but we went on separate ways.
As soon as I hit the street, it dawned on me that in spite of living in Paris for six months now, I barely knew my way around. I reached Champs Elysee where I bumped into several Pinays dressed to the nines in front of a Chinese restaurant full of Filipinos. I asked them how to go to St. Bernadette church. They told me to take the metro. Unfamiliar with the line connections of the metro, I got lost.
When I got to Chapelle Sainte Bernadette, the mass had already finished and the place was closed. I went on walking not knowing where to go. My winter jacket wasn´t warm enough to protect me from the chilly December breeze.
As if the closed church was not enough, I found myself standing in front of a shuttered metro. It was extremely late and I only had 30 euros in my pocket. I texted my flatmates and they told me they were on their way home. There were no buses, no metro and my French was bad. I hailed a taxi and I prayed so hard that my thirty euros would be enough for the fare.
As it turned out, my flatmates were not coming home just yet thinking that I was having fun with my friends. I couldn’t enter the house because I didn’t have the key. I didn’t want them to feel sorry for me so I told them I was fine. I walked to the nearest bus stop and sat on the bench. A police car came by and stopped in front of me. I was both shaking from the cold and the imminent arrest. I would be deported on Christmas day! One of the officers asked where I was going and even offered a ride. With my broken French, I told them I was waiting for a taxi.
As soon as the police car vanished from sight, I burst out crying, tears, snot and all. My flatmates came home at eight in the morning clueless about my eventful Christmas eve party.
A Portuguese Christmas
— Lilia Macaraeg Tabaris
I came to Lisbon on 8 September 1996. My first Christmas in Lisbon was very memorable. I was sad because I was away from my family but at the same time happy because I was spending it with my future husband. It was our first Christmas as a together.
For the Portuguese, Christmas means family gatherings. We had our Christmas dinner at 11:00 that went on until past midnight. Every year, they would assign somebody to be the Santa Claus complete with the costume and before the end of the dinner, he would knock on the door and distribute gifts to all the members of the family. That year, it was my brother-in-law who was the Santa. We had so much fun.
Right after I finished my masters in Florence, I planned my Christmas in Austria. So I took the train going to Villach, the first Austrian city near Italy. Before coming to Villach, I had already contacted an Austrian family to rent one of their rooms for several days before joining my relatives in Hamburg, Germany for the New year.
On Christmas eve, I didn´t have any idea how Austrians celebrate Christmas. I joined my host family at dinner. It was just an ordinary dinner. Schnitzel and sliced wurst were served. At 9 o´clock right after the meal, the candles on the Christmas tree were lit. Traditionally, the Christmas tree is brought in and decorated on Christmas Eve and decorations include candles. There were gifts under the tree and Christmas carols played in the background. During the gift giving, my host family gave me winter gloves and in return, I got them a box of chocolate.
Christmas the French way
— Bert C.
My first Christmas holiday in Europe was already pre-determined. My sister, who is a nurse in London and her then French boyfriend Valentin, planned to celebrate Christmas with Valentin´s family in Bar-le-duc, northeast of France. When I arrived at the station, I was met by Valentin´s parents, Maman Chantal and Papa Rene´(as I fondly called them) and Valentin´s brother. My sister was coming the following day.
It was awkward at first because I didn’t know Valentin´s family. But when I started saying “Ca va?” , to which they gamely replied “Two kishh”, referring to the two-kiss greetings of the French, it broke the ice. They turned out extremely nice and funny. They took me to the town centre and there I saw I wide array of wines.
On Christmas eve, my sister and Valentin were already with us. We had a big dinner and there was foie gras, the famous Quiche Lorraine, a lot of chocolate, cheeses and of course, bottles and bottles of vin. I can still remember Côtes-du-Rhône and the sweet one, Entre-deux-Mers. After dinner, we went to hear the midnight mass. On Christmas day, Maman Chantal and Papa René gave me a French-English dictionary as a Christmas present.
No Christmas break
I arrived in Warsaw, Poland in December 2008 to work in an ice cream factory. But when I got there, I learned that I would be working for the ice cream factory owner´s family instead. Cleaning their 3-storey house, taking care of the three dogs and two cats, looking after the needs of their three daughters and helping my female employer in the kitchen. My female boss was an aspiring chef and would always prepare massive dinners and invite a lot of people to try her food. I was only supposed to work for eight hours as stated in my contract but in the end, I was working from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. And that was without overtime pay. I decided to soldier on though. Poland would be just my door to Europe, I told myself.
We lived in the outskirts of Warsaw and I hadn´t seen any Filipinos in the area. On the day before Christmas day, I was alone sitting in the kitchen. My boss took his family out to go shopping.
Soon, the family arrived and so did a lot of guests. My boss had invited their friends and relatives and prepared a lot of dishes. As expected, I was tasked to help my female boss in the kitchen. When it was my time to eat, everything tasted bland no matter how delicious-looking the food was. All I could think of was how my children celebrated their Christmas without me back home. By midnight, I was still working my way in the kitchen washing the dishes and cleaning the mess. I was only able to finish everything at three in the morning. I was so exhausted that I slept like a log on Christmas day.
Christmas gift from a cat
– Julai Nogalada-Caballé
I came to Holte, a town north of Copenhagen in November 2004 to work as an Au Pair. The family I was working for was extremely nice and they immediately made me feel at home. My first Christmas with them was really memorable. I was a bit surprised that they went to buy a Christmas tree only two days before the 25th. We went to this shop where we chose a live tree and cut it ourselves. This is so unlike our Christmas preparations back home in the Philippines where we usually start decorating our houses as early as September.
On Christmas eve, my Danish employers prepared Flæskesteg, the traditional Danish Christmas roast pork. It reminded me of our lechon. They also asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I was a bit shy at first but they insisted saying that I was already a part of their family. So I sheepishly told them that a camera would be great so I could take photos to send to my family.
After dinner, during the gift giving, I got my Olympus camera! But not only that, I also received another present from their pet cat!
A Nutty Christmas
I arrived in Copenhagen in September 2007. I came to Europe alone and I remember crying a lot on my first days but my host family made a great effort to make me feel comfortable. I celebrated my first Christmas in Europe with my host family and their relatives. We were around more than ten people on Christmas eve.
We had the traditional dinner at 10 p.m. where they prepared a roast pork with brown sauce and potatoes. After the main course, we had risalamande for dessert. It is a cold rice pudding dish and normally served with a hot cherry sauce. As part of the Danish tradition, there is whole almond hidden inside. Each of us was asked to have one scoop and the one who could find the almond would get a gift. Unfortunately, I didn´t find the almond. But, I was very fortunate to have extremely nice and generous host family. They even allowed my then boyfriend (who is now my husband) to join us at the family dinner. During the giving of presents, they gave me a laptop and an I-pod. Right after the gift giving, everybody danced around the Christmas tree while singing the traditional Danish Christmas carol “Nu är det jul igen” (Now it is Yule again). They asked me and my boyfriend to also sing a Filipino Christmas carol to which we gamely sang “Sa may bahay ang aming bati”.
– Emmalyn Olimpiada Juan