Our Not So Nomadic Christmases
By Consul General Paul Raymund Cortes
Our journey as a family began in January 1997 when my wife and I tied the knot in Baguio, a city known as the Philippines’ Summer Capital. A few months thereafter, we found out that we were expecting our first born due in January the year after. Christmas 1997 was the first of our 20 Christmases thus far.
Onto our penultimate month of pregnancy, prepping for that first Christmas was laden with shopping for baby clothes and paraphernalia, myself clueless as to whether it was a son or daughter, a secret held deeply by wife who knew all along it was a boy coming. My boy, Justin, joined the family as we celebrated our first wedding anniversary in January 1998. A few weeks after, I received another family milestone – a notice of our first foreign assignment: Budapest, Hungary; then a new democracy in Central Europe that just ditched Iron Curtain loyalty barely a decade ago in favor of the rosy repute of the EU. By the middle of that year, my wife, our little baby, and myself were in the Paris of the East (as travelers have nicknamed the Danube city of Buda and Pest), eager to make a home out of a city we barely knew, a language we could not understand, and a climate alien to us. I arrived in Budapest towards the tail end of winter, still too cold for my tropical skin while my wife and son arrived in the middle of summer, together our first foray into temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius.
The anticipatory days leading into autumn up until the first days of snow sometime mid-November made us giddy with excitement as Christmas, our first one away from the country and our first one alone as a nuclear family, approached. I remember having to run to Ikea one winter evening, the Swedish franchise then a novelty for many of us much unlike the way it is so ubiquitous nowadays, to purchase Christmas décor, holiday cloth for the curtains and drapes, and lights. I rushed back to our apartment as my wife eagerly planned to festoon our flat with the holiday atmosphere we were used to back home. Budapest Christmas Eve in 1998 was much quieter compared to the Christmases back home in the Philippines. Yet as it was a first for us (though it was a cold and white Christmas), we savored every moment of it, remaining so fresh in my and my wife’s memory chest two decades after.
Keeping Up With ConGen: Our Not So Nomadic Christmases
We spent the next 6 Christmases in Europe, all of it in snow, bitter cold that reached 20, sometimes 30 below, our family growing from 3 to 4, as my wife bore another son, Andre, three winters after first stepping foot in Europe. By then, the cold was second nature. I finally understood what White Christmas meant. I could sing all those carols I sang as a child with conviction (Frosty the Snowman, Jingle Bells, and yes, White Christmas). I realized how messy snow and mud could be, and I learned how not to slam on the brakes lest the car slide and spin uncontrollably.
After our tour of duty in Europe, we had to resettle to the Philippines, spending the next two Christmases in the country where we were reared, the familiar traditions now needing explanations to my two sons as they were grappling with the hoopla behind the famed Pinoy Christmas. But just as my boys seemed to acculturate to the way Pasko is celebrated back home, we received orders to proceed to my next assignment – the remote islands of Hawaii!
Early on my Hawaii posting, I learned it didn’t matter what month we arrived in Hawaii – the weather all year round was light, comfortable, breezy, and well, paradise-like. I had thought that Hawaii Christmases and its winters, for that matter, were warm and humid, typical of the tropics. It wasn’t; rather, it was cool and the air could get quite chilly, though not even close to Budapest’s Indian summers. Because of the incredibly large population of Filipinos in the state, the Aloha Christmas could be like the Philippines’, complete with puto bumbongs and bibingkas or rice cakes, SimbangGabis or Night Christmas Mass, and the usual Pinoy flare. The dominant Filipino presence in the islands obviously meant that anything that could remind one of Christmas back home was available for all. Of course, holidays in America, – much as it could try to mirror that of ours back home – were just different. You constantly longed for those noisy clan reunions during Christmas, that rare occasion in a year when everyone was just there.
Twice, my sons begged for a Disney Christmas – and so off we went to California to spend the season with my mother who lives there. By then, we had missed three white Christmases and hoped that we could have one in LA. One Christmas, it was raining much like our typhoon season back in the Philippines, but much chillier and the precipitation almost like ice rain, the myth and misconception that all of America was blanketed in snow during Christmas shattered. We enjoyed a couple more MeleKalikimakas (the Hawaiian Christmas greeting) in the islands, with one season together with my mother, my brother and sister, and their respective families, our first after 24 years!
Spending two Christmases back home, this time, my two older sons in their teens, fully aware of the peripatetic nature of my job, and blessed with a third baby boy, Liam, our family had grown accustomed to the holiday season away from the Philippines. For some reason, we accepted the fact that after a few Christmases home, off we would go again to transport our idea of Christmas to wherever we were posted. True enough, in January 2015, we were instructed to assume our post in the Middle East, in the region’s most vibrant and electrifying city, Dubai.
As we prepare to celebrate our second Christmas in the Middle East, our 20th from the time we became a family, perspectives of what made each Christmas different from the other one has become fodder for discussions and storytelling over dinners or even succeeding Christmases. Growing older, I find my details often mixed up and I increasingly rely on my boys’ sharper memories to repaint familiar holiday celebrations, be it in Europe, America, or the Middle East. For me and my wife, however, the common denominator is that past 20 holidays were spent together – one family, regardless of where we were posted. Now that my oldest is in college, and soon, free to define his own path, I do dread counting the years before our boys decide to celebrate Christmas their own way, perhaps in another city where they choose to nurture their careers or perhaps with the families they will build someday – maybe in the same vein as my parents held on to memories as I learned to celebrate Christmas away from them, from the country, from everything I grew up with. I don’t know if I can ever be ready for peripatetic Christmases again.
CONSUL GENERAL PAUL RAYMUND CORTES
When not performing his duties as the head of the Filipino community in Dubai and the Northern Emirates, or the obligations of a dutiful dad, passionate patriot Paul Raymund Cortes mulls over how to further enrich the local Filipino community by promoting a more progressive mindset.