First Person

Celebrating the season, despite everything

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A sign outside of a house in Tacloban. Photo: Jane Beesley/Oxfam

Oxfam’s Jane Beesley is in the Philippines documenting Oxfam’s Typhoon Haiyan relief effort.

On Bantayan Island, North Cebu, I find a homemade ukulele. When I play it the crowd of people around me start singing “We wish you a merry Christmas.” I’m not sure who’s the most surprised.

Christmas is big in the Philippines. In Cebu City there’s a sign announcing “The twelve weeks of Christmas.” They’re not joking. Christmas is normally the biggest event of the year, but this is not a normal year.

In Santa Cruz, just south of Tacloban, few buildings remain. Coconut trees lay uprooted or snapped in half. When the typhoon and storm surge came, 100 people crowded into the small upstairs room of a community building. Others survived because they’d already left the village or managed to cling to trees that withstood the onslaught. Their arms wrapped tightly around the trunks. As the storm surge rushed, people told me, in they shouted to each other to climb further up the tree, to lock their hands together and not let go. I don’t know how any of them survived.

At least 300 people lost their lives. Most people lost their homes, their belongings, and their livelihoods. Now the few belongings most have are basic items from relief distributions – food, hygiene kits, mats, jerry cans, kitchen sets.

Walking through what looks like a demolition site I was surprised to see a small makeshift stall with a large Santa, Christmas tree and festive decorations strung along the front. It looks like Santa’s grotto.

Photo: Jane Beesley/Oxfam
Photo: Jane Beesley/Oxfam

“We found these Christmas decorations in the debris so we washed them and put them up,” explained Rowen, 25. “We wanted to celebrate Christmas in some way.” Rowen, like everyone I speak to, says that Christmas celebrations this year will be different from other years: “We’re happy because we’ve survived but sad because others haven’t.”

Normally there are a lot of parties, a lot of food eaten, and a lot of money spent. One of Oxfam’s vehicle drivers tells me that many people across the Philippines have decided not to have parties, or to spend so much money; instead they will send what they have saved to support people who have been affected by Typhoon Haiyan. Another driver tells me, “Something like this really makes you appreciate what really matters in life. This is what I’ll be celebrating and giving thanks for this Christmas.” Both men are from Tacloban.

Again and again I see two words written like graffiti on the remains of walls and buildings or purposely written on signs – “bangon” and “tindog” meaning “rise up” and “stand up.”  I think these two phrases sum up the spirit of the people I’ve met.

This Christmas across the Philippines, especially areas devastated by the typhoon, people will be rising and standing up, determined to support their communities and each other.

Oxfam is helping communities affected by disasters in the Philippines and beyond. Support life-changing programs like this to help people fight poverty, hunger, and injustice. Donate now. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+