My last surviving grandparent — my paternal grandmother — passed away in November. Nanay (1) was 94 years old, the mother of 11 children, grandmother to countless grandchildren. After living in the United States for 30+ years, she was laid to rest in the Philippines, just a short tricycle ride away from Tablang, the barangay (2) where she and my grandfather raised their family and called home.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I decided to make the trip for Nanay’s funeral. Aside from the rare Skype call, it had been ages since I’d seen Nanay in person, and almost 20 years since I’d visited the Philippines. As the years have gone by, my memories of living in the Philippines (my dad was stationed at Clark for 3 years in the late 1980s) have become harder to access — to the point where understanding my roots and passing it along to my own children has become less of a priority.

But even on the plane to Angeles City, a part of me began to stir that I didn’t realize had fallen asleep. It actually happened when I was in line for the bathroom, a mundane exchange between me and a gentleman who joked — in Tagalog — that we both must be trying to pass the time because we were starving and ready for merienda. That was it. And I understood what he said, and I laughed and I felt like I knew all the unspoken rules of interacting and being in this space with these people without having to think too hard. This feeling of effortless belonging was so foreign to me that even a taste of it felt like I would be sated for life. 

Stepping off the plane (and immediately regretting not bothering to take off my compression socks sooner), the humidity and constant trickle of sweat down the small of my back was uncomfortable and familiar all at once. At 2 a.m., there were dozens of white vans and SUVs ready to greet their passengers with A/Cs on at full-blast. The closer we got to our destination, my aunts (who had arrived at the same time I had) began talking about stopping to see Nanay before we arrived at the house we were staying at. And all I could think was, Is it going to be open right now? Will someone be there to open the door? What did they mean “see” Nanay?

When the car pulled up to the funeral home, I wasn’t prepared to see the whole place lit up, a handful of people lingering out front and seated in the chapel, including a young child asleep on a pew. It took me a second to realize that Nanay was peacefully lying in repose at the front of the room.

And it struck me that they were holding vigil. Some of them had been there all day and night since Nanay had passed the previous week, making sure that her body was never left alone. The room next door was stocked with food, and a cot was even available for anyone who needed to sleep.

Witnessing firsthand this act, the long-standing tradition of honoring and accompanying the dead as they journey to their resting place, was a visceral reminder of the generations of my ancestors being on this land, gathering together, holding vigil and recognizing the holy in these times of loss and mourning. Even though I was born and raised in the U.S. surrounded by Filipinos and Filipino-Americans, I was reminded that there is a part of me — the part that is made up of all those who have come before me — that still calls the Philippines home and longs for it even now. 

As Christmas draws near, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of gift-shopping and menu-planning, the road trips and plane rides, I am mindful of my tendency to forget where I come from, the numbness of the passage of time that hampers my ability to access memories of my spiritual heritage and ancestors. 

I am reminded of Joseph and Mary making the journey to be counted in Bethlehem. That the census wasn’t just a benign poll — it was taking place because of the Roman occupation (3).

I am reminded that Jesus was born into poverty, that Joseph and Mary’s temple offering was a pair of birds (Luke 2:22-24) because that was all they could afford (Leviticus 12:8). That Jesus didn’t preach about the poor from some distant moral high ground — it was because he was poor. 

I am reminded of the Israelites in exile, longing for home in a foreign land, who even in the shadow of the Babylonian empire, refused to forget who they were and where they came from. Who, in stark contrast to the Empire’s bloody and violent version of creation in the Enuma Elish, told their own version, speaking of a God whose Spirit hovered over the chaos and brought about a creation that was called good and very good.

This Christmas season, as we gather around our tables breaking bread and telling stories with loved ones, may we be reminded of who we are and where we come from. May the sacred memories of our families, both human and spiritual, bring us home, nourish us and fill us to overflowing. Maligayang Pasko!

  1. Nanay is the Tagalog word for “mother,” which is what all of her grandchildren called her.
  2. Barangay = village
  3. Brown, R.E., 1997, An introduction to the New Testament.