The Filipino Christmas is largely synonymous with family traditions, such as the noche buena and vacations. But the jubilation is often paired with backhanded compliments and outright tactless comments. Coupled with smug looks and callous giggles, the dreaded “Tumaba ka!” and the infamous “May girlfriend/boyfriend ka na ba?” have inadvertently turned into Filipino holiday mainstays one has to navigate.
(You’ve gained weight. Do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend yet?)
To their credit, these lines are often delivered in a welcoming tone, often as conversation starters. While they may optimistically be perceived as a means to have a more involved repertoire among family members, at least a million less hurtful comments would have served the same purpose. However, beyond the veneer of cheekiness lies the dark underbelly of Filipino family relationships, where outdated values and traditions may do more harm than good.
Fight or flight?
Familial pressures can very easily deter one’s holiday spirit. The love and warmth of Christmas time is suddenly lost amid stress, anxiety, and even depression that one feels from going the extra mile to prepare for these festivities. Adding overbearing and toxic family members to the mix makes the season a dizzying array of obligations that may soon feel impossible to fulfill.
The Philippines’ culture of hospitality makes us more inclined to generosity. This is magnified during the holidays because of how gift-giving is almost expected of everyone. Ninongs and ninangs (godparents) must always have presents for their godchildren. When someone from far away or abroad is visiting for a family reunion, they are compelled to have some sort of pasalubong (souvenir) for their relatives. This act thus becomes an expected chore rather than an act borne out of thoughtfulness.
Then comes the expectation to repay this seemingly unlimited debt of gratitude (utang na loob). When one is unable to provide something in return to someone whom they owe such a debt, it is frowned upon. This permeates one’s dynamic with their elders, owing to how they were taken care of when they were little. Children are expected to treat their parents with respect out of utang na loob, and talking back at them violates such social contract.
While not out of the ordinary for many, sinking into a case of the holiday blues can be painful and debilitating—but we shouldn’t be fooled by its fleeting nature either. These bouts of sadness are just as crucial to address as other mental health concerns, and those that already deal with the latter are more susceptible to them. Luckily, maintaining healthy habits such as eating and sleeping properly, exercising regularly, and drinking in moderation can help minimize these emotions.
On the other hand, there are others who can no longer deal with the familial frustrations that come at this time of year and withdraw into themselves. The decision to spend the holidays at a distance is especially tough during a season that promotes togetherness. But years of trauma leave some people with no other option—one can only sit through so many hellish, tension-filled gatherings.
Ghosts of Christmas present
The Filipino family Christmas is a double-edged sword. The love and support provided by such a community may make one feel less alone; but on the other hand, the way family members interact could ironically become isolating to someone who already feels like an outsider.
Elders have become notorious for talking about everyone in a negative manner and comparing them with those who they deem more successful in life—often those who they aren’t fully acquainted with. There is an atmosphere of shame and disappointment that lingers as elders identify all the ways one doesn’t measure up. Confrontation is almost futile and inevitably gets ugly for both sides.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community at a young age are often cornered about remarks regarding their sexuality and gender expression. Adults who should know better scandalously comment about children, “Bakla yata si ano, kasi ang lambot gumalaw.” A queer child who may already feel alone is thus served a cold sense of alienation from those who should have been providing them the tender feeling of togetherness.
(They might be gay, because of how soft they move.)
These complex inner workings of the traditional Filipino culture often become toxic. Comments made about other’s habits and appearance can simply be projections of insecurities that they’ve bottled up from their own upbringing. When these titos and titas were younger, they were expected to stomach every insensitive remark—and we are presumed to do the same. But if only trauma is gained from these invasive opinions, why should we allow these power dynamics to still perpetuate?
The Paskuhan survival guide
Keeping the peace in these situations is no easy feat. Being the target of barbs dismissed as well-meaning remarks is a nightmare nobody should have to endure. But if these festivities are unavoidable, there are some ways to diffuse the tension.
A potential solution is to handle the situation with grace, and answer honestly. For instance, when given a backhanded remark about one’s weight, a possible reply could be to simply say something along the lines of, “It’s because I’m going through a lot right now, but I hope to take better care of myself soon.” When a diss meets a meaningful, somber response, an insult can open doors to more meaningful conversations.
On the other hand, you may also choose to be upfront about how an insult was hurtful to you. Especially with generation gaps, it’s likely your relatives might not have the most up-to-date standards for what to and not to say. Still, with the hierarchy of the Filipino family, taking this approach requires one to speak less about how the comment was wrong and more about how it made the victim feel so as to avoid sounding rebellious against your elders.
And if all else fails, the last resort lies in responding with humor, or simply smiling and shrugging it off. While it isn’t necessarily the most progressive solution out there, no one—especially young, vulnerable people subjected to insults from the mouths of their elders—should feel the obligation to change society at the cost of their own mental well-being.
If, to you, a jolly holiday season means standing up for change, then by all means, put on your Santa hat and fight for your truth. But if you prefer silent, peaceful nights, then may the Christmas cheer give you the strength to send everything off with a chuckle. Snarky side comments and controversial conversation topics aside, Christmas is, and always will be, about the gift of happiness—and it’s up to you to decide what that looks like.