Saturday, January 10, 2015

Philippines Day 4: Christmas

Day 4: December 25, 2014 - Maligayang Pasko (Merry Christmas)
Christmas Eve with my cousins
If I was back in the States for Christmas, we would likely have had some extended family over for a big Christmas lunch or dinner, we’d have a tree, gifts, Christmas decorations and I’d bake a lot. In the Philippines, Christmas is a bit different. Many people had artificial trees but since we were there for a short while and we don’t live there year round, we didn’t have one nor did we decorate the house. Nor did we have a big present opening. We had given out most of our “presents” when we had arrived and unpacked our suitcases. Those presents being canned goods, dry packaged foods, clothes, some shoes, school supplies for the kids, make up for my female relatives, sponges, toothbrushes, toothpaste and other necessities. In a Third World country, you focus mostly on needs rather than wants although it’s always nice to toss in a few indulgences like makeup and nail polish.
My paternal grandmother: 1910 - 2004
It’s a Filipino tradition that kids go “na-ma-masko” meaning they go to adult relatives and friends to pay their respects and wish them a Merry Christmas and in return, they get money. Think of it like trick or treating but at Christmas instead of Halloween and you get money instead of candy. When I was growing up, only the kids did it but I’ve noticed in recent years that more and more adults have been doing it as well. Typically, they’re poorer and while most have jobs or make a living in some fashion, they still benefit a lot from the extra money given out at Christmas by those who can afford to do so. This might seem like a weird custom by Western standards but it’s a time-honored one in the Philippines and, similar to the giveaway done by Final Touch, is a way of “sharing blessings”. If you’re fortunate enough to be the one giving money away on Christmas, you’re considered very blessed. The amounts given out vary, depending on the person’s age (children get less than adults) and their relation or relationship to you (godchildren get more than non-godchildren, the local street sweeper and garbage pickup guy may get a little less than the guy you occasionally or regularly call on to drive you places), a poorer relative gets more than a less-poor relative, a close relation may get more than a more distant relation. It’s a judgment call every time.
Giving out candy bars to the pihit boys
Another Filipino tradition at Christmas is lechon. Lechon is whole roast pig and is my family’s main business for some of my relatives. My grandmother started the business when she was young and she built it into local fame that lives on today even though she passed away more than 10 years ago. Thanks to her hard work and entrepreneurial nature in running the lechon business, she raised, fed, clothed and educated 9 children even though she was widowed young, and having been orphaned at age 8, she only had a second grade education. Yes, she was amazing and a smart businesswoman even without a formal education. My cousins have kept up the business and during non-holiday season, they do about 35-40 lechons a week. On Christmas Day alone, they did 102. They also did more than their weekly average every day in the week leading up to Christmas and New Years. Just as in retail, they do more than 85-90% of their annual business over the holidays. People order it for large family gatherings, office parties, weddings, holiday lunches and dinners, baptisms and christening, reunions and other special occasions.
Some people might find it strange or off-putting to see a whole pig roasting over a pit but if you’re a meat-eater, it’s no different than buying a pristinely-wrapped package of pork chops at the supermarket. Actually, I would argue the pigs used for lechon are likely more humanely treated than those that end up as mass-produced pork products. In the Philippines, there aren’t massive pig farms run by giant corporations. Instead, there are small “piggeries” supplying pigs for lechon and every pig counts for poor farmers. If a pig is sickly or dies en route, my cousins won’t accept it or pay for it so they send it back, always bad news to a farmer relying on the sale of the pig for income. It’s in their best financial, if not humane, interests to treat the pigs well. When I make loans on Kiva, I like to extend loans to pig farmers, knowing they’re who supply pigs for lechon.
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, I can understand not liking the whole scenario, regardless. But still, I can’t use my Western standards to judge. In a poor Third World country, most of its residents don’t have the luxury to forego eating meat or animal products when they’re eating for survival as to what’s cheapest and available to them.
Selling lechon by the kilo
In the Philippines, lechon is a cultural tradition and marks celebrations and special occasions. It’s a luxury food for most people as a whole lechon can be quite expensive. The price depends on the size of the lechon ordered. My relatives also offer lechon by the kilo for those who can’t afford a whole pig and they sell by the kilo on Sundays and special occasions. Any lechon that doesn’t sell is then made into “paksiw” or lechon stewed in a sauce. Nothing ever gets wasted as they cannot afford the luxury of waste.
Bags of rice to give away
As part of our own Christmas giveaway, my dad gave out bags of rice and some money to the "pihit boys" who staff the family lechon business. They're mostly grown men rather than boys but some of them have been with our family a long time, and a few were even raised by my grandmother back when they were little more than boys, orphaned or very, very poor and taken in by her, helping in the business to earn their keep. Some she even sent to school in the hopes that they would aspire to being more than a pihit boy. "Pihit" refers to the act of turning the roasting pig over the coals until they were cooked, usually for at least 2-3 hours, depending on the size of the pig. Pihit boys do more than that, as you need them to kill the pig, clean it inside and out, stuff it with banana leaves, spear it with the pole, keep the coal fire going, roast it, take it off the fire when it was done, wrap in banana leaves and cardboard, deliver it and chop it up for serving.  They have families to feed and for those with kids, we also gave them candy and crayons.

All in all, a different Christmas than how I usually spend the holiday but in many ways, much closer to the real meaning of Christmas as it was more focused on giving to others less fortunate and being conscious of my own blessings.

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