Art by Gica Tam
Culture Spotlight

Christmas chaos and the art of condensing time

It’s hard to make Christmas happen when your family are scattered across the globe and you live two continents and two time zones away from each other. How do you make time matter with all that distance?
Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta | Dec 07 2018

My siblings and I grew up annoyingly close—like pre-rift Pangaea close; we weren’t so much continents as a supercontinent. I’ve shared deodorant sticks and toothbrushes with sundry members of the pack. That’s how close. Each time one of us gets married and the church is annexed into guests of bride and guests of groom, the criers are always from our side of the family. We’ve been that loath to give each other away. But, like post-rift, now non-existent Pangaea, we’ve been scattered across three countries and two continents—my brother and one of my sisters live in the US, I have a sister in Singapore, and my eldest sister and I live in Manila. I’ll see my brother once every two or three years, my US-based sister whenever her current visa allows her to come to the Philippines (which it hasn’t in five years), or whenever work and family allow me to go to the US. I see my Singapore-based sister a couple of times a year (a day each time), and my Manila-based sister once or twice a month since work, husbands and young children take up most of our time. The Pangaea analogy hits especially close to home, and never more so than during the holiday season when we don’t actually get to see each other (being literally continents apart).

The last time my brother visited Manila with his wife and two small daughters, we spent many evenings downing grocery-bought, (but to our credit) DOCG-marked bottles of wine to make up for lost time. Talk was hardly serious, jokes were private, and harked back to our shared childhood (e.g. “What’s more important than roses on a piano? A: Tulips on an organ.”). Insert googly-eyed, wagging-tongued emoji here.

Maybe it’s a function of getting older but someone brought up the idea of how often we actually get to see each other. And that’s when the show turned into an episode of sad math. If our ages all averaged out to our early 40s and we lived to see our late 60s and early 70s, and we saw each other for two weeks every two years on the average, then the time I have left with my siblings roughly amounts to 28 weeks. Seven months. A little more than half a year. Perhaps this is the secret knowledge that fuels all our off-key— though heartfelt— videoke sessions when we get together, and the reason behind guzzling all that store-bought grape juice. All it took was for someone to say something we were all thinking without knowing we were thinking it. This was sometime in August. Shortly after, we set about planning my mom’s seventieth birthday party in November. She was spending the milestone birthday with my brother in the US, and so we agreed we’d all fly out to surprise her. We expected commitments to fall by the wayside in the three months leading up to her big day—with maybe two of us jumping ship because of work or family or both, but this year, we all made a concerted effort to be there. Maybe it was all that sad math.

My sisters and I caught the same flight to JFK, and rode the three hours to my brother’s place in Connecticut in a white van driven by Badette, a Filipina who’s lived in New York for more than ten years, and who still flies to the Philippines once a year to see relatives, despite the personal expense (airfare, food, opportunity cost) and relative expense (read: the sundry demands of relatives). See, there’s sad math everywhere. We emerged from the van a few hours later into a cold New England night, our puffer Uniqlo jackets barely holding the heat in and the cold out. We surprised our mom nearing eleven in the evening, while on the phone and in her pjs—her face lit by cold cream and surprise.  It was then that I discovered the four stages of delight: shock, denial, acceptance, and, well, happiness.

Since no one was likely to make another trip out for the holidays, we celebrated Christmas in November, a few days after Thanksgiving—a few days shy, too, of our flight back to Manila. We picked out a tree in a tree farm, decked it with red ornaments bought largely from Landmark, and made good use of the Cyber Monday sale by buying the kids their Christmas gifts on Amazon. Soon it was time to leave, the air a little more moderate than when we arrived. We checked out at 4 a.m. for a 9 p.m. flight three hours away, exceeding our two weeks/two years expectations of each other by another clean week and a half. This year, we’re racing against sad math. In the next years, we might just beat it at its game. Make more weeks happen over finite years. I can live with that.