Christmas is a time of peace and happiness within the family, but Christmas 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic had some disruptive twists resulting in a unique but significant Christmas experience not just for me but for all of us. The added twist for me was that it was my first Christmas on mission, far from my home in Tonga. The restrictions on gatherings, the nighttime curfew, the limited church attendance, the wearing of face masks and face shields and social distancing – all of these have added to the “strangeness” of Christmas.
The thought of living with restrictions over Christmas on account of the pandemic could easily cause many to feel anxious, angry, or helpless, and I too, could resonate with those feelings. Christmas under these restrictive circumstances invoked feelings of sadness within me because not only am I missing my family, but also the thought of not being able to celebrate it the conventional way added insult to injury.
However, I needed to transcend above the things that are beyond my control. This brought me to a place to reflect deeply on the reason why I am here on mission. I found the words of Pope Francis about Christmas to be very comforting–God never gives someone a gift they are not capable of receiving. If he gives us the gift of Christmas, it is because we all have the ability to understand and receive it. These words made me realize that there are still many ways for me to search and encounter God to make my Christmas more meaningful.
The Christmas celebrations I have experienced in Cagayan de Oro have given me an insight into the spirituality of the Filipinos which is expressed in so many ways. I have experienced some of them, like the Simbang gabi, a Novena Mass for nine consecutive nights before Christmas or dawn Mass, which I fully attended. I have witnessed families attending Mass together and the Noche Buena where most families would stay awake during Christmas Eve. I saw the Filipino love for singing karaoke; their lavish food preparation; tangible gift giving, all of which took place while being conscious of the pandemic restrictions. I believe these are just a few of the many customs and practices among the Filipinos, but they leave me with the impression that they can maintain a positive spirit even in the midst of a pandemic.
Problems do not stop us from celebrating Christmas – be it a pandemic or typhoons, we Filipinos manage to recover.
I once asked a taxi driver “Kuya,” (older brother) “how do you feel about Christmas this year?” I was surprised with his answer. He said, “I am happy and still thankful because my family is complete. Problems do not stop us from celebrating Christmas–be it a pandemic or typhoons, we Filipinos manage to recover.” His answer really touched me, and awakened in me a realization that God’s work manifests in different ways. Even during a global pandemic while I was celebrating my first Christmas away from home, I still managed to recover my Christmas spirit by spending time with people I have met along the way in mission.
Nevertheless, I have accepted that Christmas in a new place would never be the same as the one we celebrate in Tonga. Having acknowledged my initial feelings of sadness and having been guided to transcend above that sadness, made my first Christmas on mission enjoyable and meaningful, even if it was during a pandemic. Being able to experience the newness of everything, new companions, new places, new experiences, new traditions has been the most precious gift I have ever received for Christmas. I had a Blessed Christmas after all.
Originally from Tonga, Columban lay missionary Latai Muller lives and works in the Philippines.