December 18, 2016 — the date when I last set my feet on the Arabian grounds I lived for 26 months.
When you hear the word “holiday” in Saudi Arabia, there are only three events in the minds of the majority of the population. Those would be the end of Ramadan (also known as Eid al-Fitr), Eid Al Adha, and Saudi National Day. Don’t worry if you have no idea about them. Up to now, I’m still not so familiar with these event names. I consulted Google for the correct spelling (of course, except for the Saudi National Day, spellchecker will handle that).
One of the benefits of living in an unknown culture is I appreciate more the culture I grew up since birth.
Saudi Arabia nationals almost ignore the celebrations of Christmas and New Year. The world knows the extreme commitment of the country to preserve its Islamic way of living. Not a single church here. No public practice of faith except for Islam.
Christmas is just another ordinary day there. The celebration of the New Year has been almost just the same. And just like the Chinese, Muslims has their calendar — the Hijri Calendar. They have a different date other than the 1st day of January for New Year celebration.
When Muslims Ask Me How Filipinos Celebrate Holidays in the Philippines
One of the questions Muslims (mostly Indians and Pakistanis) often asked me is about my country. I’m happy to hear their interest. Why wouldn’t they? I came from a fascinating and colorful culture.
At the beginning of my answer, I told them, Filipinos love to eat and drink. Then their eyes will lit up with the follow-up questions, “do you always drink something alcoholic?” Of course, I should tell the truth, so I said yes. Then I continue with the word “occasionally.”
The word “occasionally” is a vague word. It doesn’t make sense at all. I want to mean “occasionally” as seldom, but the truth, it’s not. Filipinos love to celebrate. That’s why we are always happy. We appreciate and celebrate every occasion. Christmas and New Year are just two on the list. Birthdays. Fiestas. Baptism of your godchild. The marriage of a friend. Reunions. College graduation of your sibling. Or even the plain old get-together.
All of these are not holidays, but all are occasions. Some are made-ups. It doesn’t matter. Filipinos are happy people. We love celebrations. Period.
My First Christmas and New Year in Saudi Arabia
October is the month when I landed in the desert country. A couple of months later, I’m celebrating my first Christmas there.
I know this is way different from all my previous celebrations. No fancy decorations and children (including children at heart) singing Christmas songs in the front gate of our family’s house.
My fellow Filipino workmates prepare the foods. I can only remember the Macaroni Salad, the only thing I ate on that Christmas Eve.
It was a simple celebration. Nevertheless, it was full of meaning. It also reminds me of the first Christmas. I’m grateful and happy on that day.
For my first New Year celebration in Saudi Arabia, I’m inside the computer shop. I did a video chat with my mother. During this time, KSA government had not yet banned video chatting using Facebook Messenger. My relatives in the Philippines already finished celebrating New Year, yet I’m still waiting for the parting of the years. Me and my mother talking in different years. Cool, huh?
My Second Christmas
On my second Christmas, I’m more aware of the OFW (Overseas Filipino Worker) life. Especially, in one of the most Muslim-dominated and conservative country on the planet.
Weeks before Christmas, I asked my boss for leave to celebrate the holiday. He gave me one condition — finished all my assigned remaining workloads. I felt incapable and half-expecting to celebrate Christmas at the construction site. Thank God I did finish all my workloads in time — one day before Christmas. I got my monthly salary and the permission to take a three- day vacation leave.
The same day, I packed my clothes and travel to a city mountaintop. In a span of two hours of travel riding a taxi, I’m already in Khamis Mushayt. The weather is cold, and it’s raining. The instant shift of climate is unbelievable; I would think I went to another country.
I also planned to meet other Filipino friends on Christmas day there. They’re two different groups. The possibility of spending Christmas on my own is small. I just came first before them. So, I booked a hotel for two nights and three days stay. I set-up my laptop with internet connection for video chatting.
My Christmas Agony
I did everything according to plan. Or so I thought.
The following day, which is Christmas, I took a walk to appreciate the beauty of the place. I then ate my breakfast, Arabian style.
When I came back to the hotel, I turned on my laptop. I did a video-chat with my mother through Facebook Messenger. I can’t connect. She sent a text message saying their wi-fi signal is weak. Not possible for video chat.
No worries. I called them using my mobile phone. I can’t connect as well. Oh no.
I called my friends; the first group told me they canceled their plan of going to the place where I am.
I watched the Christmas Catholic Mass on YouTube. As I’m watching the Mass, there’s a part when I heard a special prayer, the Prayer of Overseas Workers.
I thought I was emotionally tough. While reading the prayer, I just felt my tears running down my cheeks. Later on, I’m hearing myself crying out loud. I even shouted “Lord, ang lungkot!”(Lord, it’s sad!).
Was this the kind of sacrifice OFWs and other expats willing to give for their family? The burden is too much; I’m just barely more than a year there. How much more for those who’s away for more than a decade? Even 20 years?
No wonder I heard a lot of stories of Filipino families broke-up.
I Learned to Respect the OFWs More
Of course, my story is not the same as everyone working abroad. But, not as unique. Many even experienced worse than mine.
At that moment, my respect for OFWs went up. I also felt proud of myself. I mean the healthy pride. The realization and appreciation of my present life brought my dignity came back to life. It should; no one would pat me on my back.
After watching the Christmas Catholic Mass, I just go out to eat lunch in the nearby Filipino restaurant named Lapaz Batchoy. I greeted the food server “Merry Christmas.” I was greeted back with a bonus smile. I’m not surprised, Filipinos are generally polite and hospitable. And love to eat. And drink.
At three in the afternoon, I suddenly remembered the second group of Filipinos I’m about to meet as well. I became so pre-occupied with my loneliness; I forgot to call them. When I called them, it was already late. They’re already on the way going back to their assigned accommodations.
I Still Enjoyed Celebrating Christmas on My Own
I walked around and pleased myself going to Shopping Malls. If there’s one thing common in Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, this is it — Shopping Malls. I’m a recovering miser and not fond of shopping. I’m not the type of person spending too much time there. The same way I don’t spend too much money there. But, it’s raining on Christmas.
At dinner, I look for another Filipino restaurant. It was inside the hotel I’m checking in. I greet again the food server “Merry Christmas.” Same as before, I was also greeted back with a bonus smile. Those simple gestures mean a lot to me. I tried to call my mother again. Still, I can’t connect. Anyway, during that time, I already adjusted myself spending Christmas on my own.
I still got one more day of vacation leave. The day after Christmas, I felt grateful and pampered for the solitude. Not many have this kind of free time to spare. I have. And I learned to love it.
For my second New Year? I got nothing much to say about it. I just spend it same as any ordinary day. At the last day of the year 2015, I slept at nine in the evening. Even if it’s Friday tomorrow, the only rest day we have every week.
I Celebrated Christmas and New Year in the Philippines (Again)
Writing helps me endure the hardness of life working in an unknown place. I’m blessed enough to find some form of good outlet. Thus, one of them is writing. I’m not emotionally tough. Most of the time, I’m just pretending because I have to. I just hold on to my faith, hoping everything turns out for the better. If I have to do all over again exactly what I have done as an OFW, I’m not sure if I can do it again.
After waiting for two years, I have finally spent my Christmas and New Year with my family. They are the most important group of people in my life.
I can say my experience living in Saudi Arabia is one of the best things that happens to me. It makes me realized how important people in my life are. It even strengthens my faith. Part of our human weakness is to ignore the most important parts of our life until it’s gone.
For OFWs, I have my utmost respect for you. Also, if your parents work abroad, please remember the sacrifice they are willing to pay for your better future. If you’re planning to work abroad, take heart, you’re about to take a tough battle.
Hope you spent well your holidays. Thank you for reading. 🙂