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Holiday Surprises

A Letter from Cathy Chang and Juan Lopez, serving in the Philippines

December 2020

Write to Cathy Chang
Write to Juan Lopez Carrasco 

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It started with hand-drawn pictures and messages in our mailbox. Or maybe it started with our family playing in the street.

Around July as community quarantine measures were starting to ease up, we wondered if we could play outdoors. We were used to playing cards and board games on our balcony normally reserved for drying laundry, for our dose of Vitamin D. Although she and other children couldn’t go shopping with one of us, thankfully our daughter Aurelie could play in the street: a game of catch, badminton, or simply running up and down the street to get her legs moving and heart pumping, must have felt like freedom.

One by one, a group of girls emerged from their homes and into the street. Naturally Aurelie invited her best friend who lived across the street. They noticed a newer neighbor, another school-aged girl who peeked her head out of her garage where her family was selling food and secondhand clothing. Thanks to birthday money and a local bike shop, Aurelie was determined to transition from her training wheels to a real bicycle, with the street as her test track. We didn’t notice them, but the two sisters next door must have been watching from their balcony. That’s how five girls living on the same street started playing together.

September is the official start of Christmas in the Philippines. Happy with these newfound friends, and even happier because it was the start of Christmas, the two sisters already started talking about their Christmas parties and handing out gifts to their friends. This time, they shared more than messages but cookies and other sweet treats with Aurelie. When Aurelie and I baked on Sunday afternoons, we also shared some with these two sisters.

Celebrating Christmas at our Filipino local church in 2019

Looking forward to one of Aurelie’s favorite holidays, Halloween, we knew the pandemic would cancel our annual tradition of games and entertainment, followed by trick-or-treating in their subdivision. After several years of receiving their invitations, this time we invited them to our street. For several months, they also had not traveled outside their home – but we cautiously added to this bubble of five girls, for our changed-up version.

When we designed invitation cards on the computer, Aurelie and Juan came up with new ways of thinking about the day. Instead of “trick or treat,” we called it “candy fiesta.” We knew more of our neighbors would be at home. This time of year is usually remembered for All Saints and All Souls Days, instead of Halloween. This year, the government issued restrictions against families who would gather in cemeteries or columbarium, to pray for their loved ones.

Candy was still at the center of this holiday, but with a twist. We bought paper bags and candy for the kids to stuff goodie bags for neighbors first, and then for themselves. After preparing the goodie bags in our garage, we rang doorbells for “kapitbahay kendi delivery” (neighbor candy delivery). We knew what we were doing – but most of our neighbors were surprised by this change-up. Our landlady neighbor didn’t answer her door at first because she told us that she thought that the kids wanted candy from her. She was surprised to discover that there was a bag of candy waiting for her. With sugar coursing through their veins, the kids continued their fun with jump rope, bubbles, and tag, until the sun went down, and then ran around more and danced with neon bracelets.

A few days after the “candy fiesta” and games, we received another hand-written card from our neighbors, the two sisters, inviting us to their Christmas party in the garage. Their mother explained that the girls had so much fun, that they were eager for something similar for Christmas.

This gathering will most likely be our only in-person Christmas event, but this time with newest friends. For the past four years, our social calendar expands quickly during this time of year with several different gatherings of Filipino friends. Often this is the most joyous time with our Filipino colleagues and friends. Like Halloween, we have had to change our plans. Before the pandemic, we were making plans to visit Juan’s family in France – but now that will happen another time. In a few days, we will join my extended family will gather for our first-ever Zoom Thanksgiving, with members coming from several U.S. states and maybe some from Korea. The last time we had so many relatives from both U.S. and Korea gather for Thanksgiving, was when I was in middle school!

As we look forward to our family’s traditions for Christmas, we will still deck our halls, with our Lego Advent calendar along with nativity sets that represent different Filipino communities. Based on what we experienced at Halloween, we will also need to create some new rituals – but we’re not fully there yet. Amid this pandemic, many of you have experienced how this year has been one of tremendous upheaval and disruption. We grieve for these many accumulated losses. We also celebrate life that is borne of out of desire for adaptability and constancy in our daily routines and holiday rituals.

Jesus Christ, the Lord of life and love, was born into the vulnerability of the human condition, who was – is – and will always be a surprise gift of sorts. Resonating with the words of apostle Paul to the believers at Corinth, thanks be to God for this indescribable gift! Such life and love are grounded in God’s steadfast love. Thank you for demonstrating such life and love that sustains us in mission service and partnership, as you share your financial gifts and when you pray for us and the Filipino people. Our shared witness to Jesus Christ is strengthened when we love God and neighbors. With the Filipino people, especially our neighborhood girls, we rejoice with you in this holy season. Merry Christmas!

Your friends in Christ,
Cathy, Juan and Aurelie

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