Christmas in Tacloban: Filipinos celebrate amid the wreckage

Christmas in Taclobanvia

Girlyn Antillon’s savings have run out. She can no longer afford the rent on the temporary housing that her family moved into after Supertyphoon Haiyan cut a deadly and destructive swath through the central Philippines on Nov. 8. The Antillon family has nowhere to go but back home, to Tacloban, a city leveled by sea surges and still in the early stages of recovery. “Even though the bodies are cleared out, it stinks, and there are a lot of flies,” says Antillon.

Nonetheless, she insists that she had a good reason to celebrate Christmas this year. Four days after Haiyan (named Yolanda in the Philippines) destroyed her hometown, she discovered her parents and all six of her siblings alive amid the wreckage. “It will be a very special Christmas after everything that happened,” says Antillon.

The Philippines is the third biggest Catholic country in the world (after Brazil and Mexico), and Christmas is not just a holiday but also a religious occasion. As Filipinos struggle to recover from Haiyan, however, a stripped-down and subdued Christmas celebration has taken hold in the hardest-hit areas. “You can never take Christmas out of the Filipino,” says Richard Gordon, chairman of the Philippine Red Cross.

“Normally at this time of month you hear children singing Christmas carols outside of the houses and asking for coins,” says Aaron Aspi, a relief worker for World Vision, but he says this year the carolers have gone silent. “I wake up to the sound of chain saws on the trees that have fallen.”

Housing remains a work in progress, and the cost of building supplies, like planks of wood, has strained household budgets to the breaking point. Few families in the disaster-struck areas can afford to spend money on extravagances such as decorations and gifts. But they can improvise.

They have, for example, hung homemade ornaments from saplings alongside the road, stringing plastic bags filled with dyed water to the branches. They have lashed bamboo stalks together in a cone-shaped semblance of a pine tree, with CDs decorating it. Each disc bears a handwritten message: “Merry Christmas everyone,” “A simple gift is a complete family,” “Everything happens for a reason.”

The typhoon also forged new congregations of worshippers. In the community of Palo, south of Tacloban, people took shelter from the storm at a convent run by the Missionaries of Charity. “We prayed all through the morning on that day,” says Sister Imelda. “Then they stayed for a week since they had nowhere to go.” Now the families have persuaded the nuns to arrange a Christmas celebration, so they can pray together once more, this time by choice. “On Christmas Day, we will celebrate Mass together with the children,” she says.

Monsignor Bernardo Bantin, rector of the nearby Cathedral parish, says the children’s plays normally scheduled around this time had to be scrapped. The masses in Bantin’s church will be held under tarpaulin this year, since both roof and dome are missing. “There are very few lanterns, even in church, and the power isn’t back,” Bantin says. “In a way it’s going to be a quite silent, drab Christmas.”

The atmosphere could be very special, though. Bantin says the hardships of the past month and a half have strengthened bonds in the community. “The first week, people didn’t know what to do, they just tried to stay safe while the rain kept pouring. Now, the joyful Filipino spirit is already back. In a way, the ordeal has brought people together.”

Originally at

A typhoon survivor decorates a Christmas tree amid the rubble of destroyed houses in the City of Tacloban in central Philippines
A typhoon survivor decorates a Christmas tree amid the rubble of destroyed houses in the City of Tacloban in central Philippines. Photo: Erik De Castro/Reuters

Typhoon survivors in Tacloban do their best to find solace in Christmas

Typhoon survivors in Tacloban still trying to piece their lives back together summon up courage to find solace in the festive season

Via South China Morning Post: When Super Typhoon Haiyan tore through the southern Philippines last month, destroying towns, lives and livelihoods, the early Christmas decorations did not stand a chance.

Maria Rose, a Filipino sociologist, had set up early for this year’s festivities. Nothing is left.

“The typhoon destroyed my tree and decorations. But what’s important now for Christmas is that I’m together with my family,” said Rose.

Tacloban, the Philippine city that suffered the worst devastation from the super typhoon, which killed more than 6,000 and affected the lives of 11 million, is tentatively trying to regain its Christmas cheer.

But when bodies are still being recovered at an average of 25 a day and survivors are busy rebuilding their lives, it’s hard to muster that spirit.

“Christmas will be very different,” said Alan Ibanez, a resident of Tolosa, a town 25 kilometres outside Tacloban.

“Almost every family is in shock. In Tacloban, I know a nine-member family where only one survived. How do you think she can celebrate?

“I see the woman going every day to the mass grave where her loved ones are buried.

“There are mothers without children and children without mothers. Now everyone is just fixing their lives.”

Some survivors have found decorations amid the rubble and are putting up their own Christmas trees outside what’s left of their houses. And many residents who left the city to seek refuge with relatives elsewhere in the Philippines are trying to come home for the festive season.

“People are coming back for Christmas. I have one family member who is staying with me who came back yesterday,” said Neil Benedict Montejo, a local business owner.

The dawn masses, which take place every morning starting nine days before Christmas Day, are an important tradition in the Philippines. This year they have taken on extra poignancy in the wake of the disaster as Tacloban residents – 98 per cent of whom are Catholic – turn to their faith for comfort.

On the first day of the masses, thousands walked in darkness towards their damaged churches to give thanks and offer prayers for their loved ones.

“Before we had Christmas parties where we would exchange gifts, but now there won’t be any. What’s important is for us to attend mass, thanking God that we survived,” said Rose.

Most survivors are entirely dependent on aid and will miss out on eating the lechon – or suckling pig – that usually crowns their Christmas feast. “Almost all the pigs have died,” said Ibanez.

Those who no longer have houses will celebrate Christmas in the halls and classrooms that now serve as evacuation centres.

Government organisations have made an effort to boost Christmas spirit.

Lanterns set up by the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority around the St Nino parish and Tacloban airport will light up the city, which is still mostly reliant on generators.

A 17-metre Christmas tree has been erected on the grounds of Tacloban city hall by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology. Prisoners created decorations out of used water bottles and galvanised iron pipes left behind by the storm.

It will be an improvised Christmas this year in Tacloban, but for those who survived Haiyan, it is a chance to be thankful for what they still have.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as:
Battling spirit of city that saw Christmas blown away.

Father Silouan

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