This time of year is when I should be humming “I’ll be home for Christmas.” Every December for the seven years I’ve lived abroad, I fly home to Manila to celebrate the holidays. But things are different this year. No plane tickets booked months in advance, no swimsuits and summer clothes in suitcases, no mad rush to shop for gifts for family and friends. This will be my first Christmas away from home, and my family’s first Christmas in Amsterdam.
But where is home? Ah, the eternal expat dilemma. Perhaps this will actually be my first Christmas at home—the home that I’ve come to see as my own.
Marlon and I saw this coming as soon as Tala turned two and we started having to pay for her airfare. Making the decision to stay in Amsterdam for the holidays was tough. We agonized over it for weeks.
Giving up what I miss about home—sunshine, good food, the beach, friends—was nothing. The real struggle within me was about the people I loved. I was wracked with guilt about depriving Tala of her only face-to-face time with my mom and sister, and vice versa.
Yet the gaping hole that was our savings account also gnawed at me. What we would have spent flying home this Christmas would be the equivalent to the cost of a second-hand car in Manila. No wonder many overseas Filipinos in Europe or the UK don’t go home for years and years. We’ve been lucky to be able to afford a trip home every year up to this point. But things change when you have a child.
Flying family over, while a cheaper option, was not a viable one. My mom was recovering from an eye operation and faces a smorgasbord of health issues that complicate long-distance travel.
Finally, we made the decision. Somehow we convinced my mom to come here for her and Tala’s birthdays in March instead (they were born one day apart).
Then the guilt gave way to… relief.
Marlon and I started breathing a little easier. We felt triumphant at having dodged the horror that is Manila holiday traffic. We brightened at the thought of putting something away in the bank at the end of a long year of hard work. I started feeling less like a callous daughter and a bad mother. We began looking forward to discovering what Amsterdam holds in store for us at this time of year, and to inventing our own holiday traditions.
We went, as a family, to the neighborhood square where Tala plays in the summer, and picked out our first real Christmas tree together first—a lovely, full, fresh pine tree. We’d never have bought one before, because they only go on sale after Sinterklaas and then we’d have to leave immediately for Manila.
We spent the first evening after Sinterklaas decorating the tree together. I played the Ateneo Chamber Singers’ Christmas album, Marlon strung up the lights, and Tala helped me unpack all the ornaments.
She hung up her first glass ball and met some of our favorite Christmas ornaments—Santa Claus in his workshop, a host of angels, a precious glass pegasus, a rather glum-looking Vincent Van Gogh.
and simply let the first waves of gratitude and joy wash over me.
The peace of the season can be elusive in the merry chaos of a Filipino Christmas. Here, in our little corner of Amsterdam, I feel a sense of home that is different yet familiar at the same time. Instead of simply slotting into my place in a well-oiled holiday routine, I’ll have to map out new territory.
In this home, I am no longer the child, but the parent. But through Tala’s eyes I can see Christmas with fresh eyes, and in doing so, become the child again.
So, bring on the gluhwein and ice skating! Prepare the Noche Buena and turn up the Christmas carols! Yes, I’m spending Christmas away from home. But I’m also going to be home for the holidays. Who says I can’t do both?