During annual Christmas dinners with her friends, content producer Pauline avoids making eye contact when it's time to swap gifts at the end of the meal. She knows her friends wouldn't judge her, yet she feels the pressure to play Santa.
Not with bills to pay and family to spend for. Pauline always finds herself telling her barkada, “Pahabol ko na lang sa January”. When cash is tight and the future is uncertain due to COVID, why do Filipinos feel the pressure to give gifts even when it's logical not to.
“Ginagawa ng iba, kaya you are compelled to do the same thing. Christmas became a cultural expectation for Filipinos, specifically the gift-giving phenomenon,” said Prince Kenex Aldama, a sociologist from U.P. Los Baños.
CHRISTMAS LIFE KIT:
Traditions encourage gift-giving
“Unlike other holidays na you can spend it na hindi mo namamalayang holiday pala,” Aldama said. Predominantly Christian Philippines celebrates Paskong Pinoy as early as September until late as mid-January.
“Kahit na you don’t identify yourself as Catholic or Christian, nadadala ka sa season na ito because you can see around us many decorations, Christmas lights, Christmas trees,” he added.
With Jose Mari Chan playing everywhere you go and calendars filled with get-togethers with family and friends, the stage is set to swap gifts big and small.
“Collective yung anticipation ng mga Pilipino dito sa Christmas. It requires rituals, may mga performances, people will do something about it that will include themselves… that will entail gift-giving, masses, that will entail putting food on the table. Merong physical manifestation. May financial element din,” Aldama said.
Culture expects gift-giving
Filipino culture specifcially dictates that baptismal godparents give gifts to their godchildren or inaanak, Aldama said.
“In order for you to fulfill those cultural expectations, you need to perform some things to be part of the process. May perang ka-akibat yon. May finances kang kailangang ilaan para sa pagbibigay ng regalo at paghahanda sa Pasko,” he said.
It’s what reinforces the consumerist behavior during the holidays—regardless of how much you still have left in the bank. “Culture and economic life reinforce one another during Christmas,” he said.
“Nasa upbringing din yan ng mga Pilipino, nung bata ka, kailangan may ibibigay sayo. Mahirap tanggalin, nakalakihan mo na yang bagay na yan. It’s generational, na-transfer, we are socialized that Christmas is actually the season of giving, but behind that, it would entail spending,” he said.
You give gifts out of utang na loob and hiya
According to Aldama, the Filipino value of utang na loob goes beyond monetary value. “Hindi yun matutumbasan ng kahit na anong pera kahit na anong materyal na bagay. But as Filipinos, what we try to do is to get closer to that kahit we know for a fact na hindi talaga yon matatawaran.”
“Nakakahiya naman kung wala akong regalo di ba?” Pauline said, “and sa bosses or co-workers ko rin na tinulungan ako for projects earlier in 2021.”
There are so many things to consider: “Nakakahiya naman kung di ko sila ma-imbita, nakakahiya kung wala akong regalo, nakakahiya kung wala akong pamasko for my inaanaks,” Pauline said. Showing up empty-handed to meet ninongs or ninags that showered her with gifts in her youth is also a source of stress.
“Doon nakakabit yung value ng hiya ng mga Pilipino, doon sa utang na loob,” he said.
Christmas is about family
Family is at the center of Filipino culture, and this aligns with the story of Christmas, Mary and Joseph welcoming the Baby Jesus in a manger, Aldama said.
“Filipinos are drawn to that kind of value. Yung family orientedness. May mga belen talaga,” Aldama said.
“We cannot deny that the cultural pressure and cultural expectation from Filipinos pushes a lot of us to spend way beyond our budget,” he said. “More than the gifts, it’s really the message we have to think about.”
What to do when you’ve got no gift
Filipinos often play the subtle game of ‘pakiramdaman’ with ease. You read the room silently, feeling out how other people will act and react. Oftentimes, Christmas parties will announce if gifts are encouraged or required, with some dictating the type of gifts and budgets expected.
Still, it’s easy to see yourself caught in the middle of an exchange-gift frenzy with nothing to give.
Aldama suggested giving gifts still, if you are absolutely compelled. You can say you’ll give it after Christmas, or in January.
Before you give that gift or save face, ask yourself: “How sincere are these people in giving the gifts? Baka nagbibigay ka lang, pero after that, hindi mo na naman kilala or makikita yung mga kapamilya mo. Parang, what’s the point?” Aldama said.
Create new traditions
There’s always a way to reinvent traditions to focus on what’s truly important, Aldama said. “We define, redefine, and reshape how we celebrate Christmas every year".
“Yung diwa ng kapaskuhan, hindi talaga makukulong sa materyal na bagay. Yung gift of compassion and understanding the situations of other people is one of the things that we can give to our family and to our loved ones,” he said.
Christmas, more than anything, is about compassion and reflection. It got lost along the way as modern society solidified into what it is today, but there’s always a platform for rediscovering roots and reminding loved ones, especially kids, the reason generosity reigns at the end of a tough year.