Double-Taking on Religion, Tradition, and Being Filipino on Christmas

Posted on December 26, 2011 by


The night before Christmas, Mikey had a bit to drink.

A normally calculated, reserved, controlled individual, Mikey was raw, uncalculated, and uncontrolled.  He was adding bitch and the n-g-a word to everything he said.  He was play-punching 13-year old girls.  He was making impressions.

One of the impressions was of our dear Tita Ming.  “Tita” in Tagalog is “auntie,” a broad term we use for  older adult women.  Our Tita Ming is a generally very enthusiastic if not outwardly vivacious woman that any outsider would immediately be able to identify after 5 minutes of conversation.  She’s about 5 feet tall and has put on some pounds over the years.  She’s fond of extolling the accomplishments of her lone high-achieving, highly competent, yet-striving-to-be-normal college-aged son.  Our Tita Ming happens to be deeply religious.

On this Christmas Eve night, we were a tribe of almost 50 in a cabin in Big Bear.  First time in over 25+ years that our families have known each other that we’ve made such an expedition.  We’d spend each Christmas together since we were toddlers. We call each other “cousins” because we’d more or less become a family bonded together by our mothers who went to nursing school together in the Philippines. We are all more or less adults now, but this is the first time our families have made a collective trip for Christmas.

We were having the time of our lives.  Unlimited snacks, XBox 360, snow, snowboarding, snowtubing, alcohol, beer pong.  Plenty of bsing around, of which Mikey was the undisputed object of hilarity on this Christmas Eve night.

One of the kids in the cabin asked “who’s going to church tomorrow?”

In his stupor, having already generated laughs from various antics, Mikey responded, his eyes popped and pretend-outraged, his voice slightly sunk and his shoulders tensed and slowly huffing and puffing in rhythm, imitating a burly early 20th century-big city ward boss, “Are you scared of going to church tomorrow?  Tita Ming, Tita Ming…”

We erupted in laughter…for the dead-on-ness of how demanding she might be about getting us to go to church.

The laughter continued till the very next morning, when the very scenario mocked by Mikey more or less played itself out.

Tita Ming had previously told us the night before Christmas Eve that we would be going to church on Christmas day.  This was met with little response by the chorus of kids.

Then, the morning of Christmas came.  Sure enough…

The kids sprawled out on the couches in sweats…

“So how come you guys aren’t ready?  Mass is at 11.  It’s Christmas day!”  Tita Ming inquired aloud to anyone in particular.

Little response came from me, and the other 7 or so kids on the couches in their sweatpants and other sleepwear.

She began to realize that many of us were extremely reluctant to go to church.  One in particular was our cousin named Mary, who has a 5-year old son, named Jared.

Mary is 25 years old and a licensed vocational nurse.  Last I checked, she was working insane hours to save up money to build a nice life for herself, her fiance, and her son.  I’ve known her since I was a kid, and saw her as loveably affable with plenty of “dumb blonde” moments.  Beyond that bubbly shell is a smart, hard-worker and caring mother.

Tita Ming had unintentionally singled her out, asking her, “if this is what she wanted to teach Jared.”  It was almost like a shot at Mary’s mothering.

Mary replied that she did not want to take him to church.  She snapped back petulantly, “I already took Jared to church “last week.”

Filipinos have a history tightly braided to upholding Catholic tradition, especially here in the United States.  Whether it’s saying 2000 Hail Marys, buying and displaying a Last Supper painting in a living room, or going to church for Christmas or Easter.   Our tribe, our extended family is no exception.

Watching the argument unfold, the chorus of kids, silently wincing and sensing Mary’s faux pas, that her answer would hardly be adequate to satisfy old ward boss Tita Ming, urged her to keep her mouth shut from digging herself deeper into trouble.

Tita Ming kept pressing and lecturing.  She said that Mary would be breaking tradition.  She expressed concern that Jared as a result wouldn’t know anything, and would be ignorant.  She called on Mary’s parents, and fiance to chide her into going to church.

An exasperated Mary pointing at a tumbling Jared said, “Look at him, he doesn’t want to go!”

Mary’s brother, casually remarked for the chorus of kids that “he’s 5 years old.”  The chorus of kids, somewhat laughing at her attempts to argue ward boss Tita Ming, somewhat defending her, further implored Mary to quiet down.  “Mary, just close your mouth, don’t say anything else!”

After an elongated sermon, an incensed Tita Ming switched gears but still maintained an intensity, “OK, I can’t force you to go.  You’re all adults, its your life.”

Being Catholic = Being Filipino

The argument between Tita Ming and Mary made me think of the passing of tradition from generation to generation between immigrant parents and their kids. The argument between Tita Ming and Mary was not so much about the passing of spirituality and sources of inspiration but more about the passing of values considered central to “being Filipino.”

Part of being Filipino to my parents and Tita Ming are importing the traditions learned in the Philippines to their contexts over here in the US of A.  In the Philippines, they were used to preparing, decorating, and celebrating Christmas beginning in October.  They were going to church 12 straight days before each December 25th.  The practices signify Catholicism but with a distinct Filipino flavor, and so those practices become a part of “being Filipino.”

Importing people, food, practices, mannerisms from home countries have been central to immigrant lives and identities here in the United States.  Importing stuff from what we perceive to be our homes is central to establishing a home in a 2nd home.  But some things do not always get imported.

My parents and my aunties and uncles have all been met with their fair share of rejected importations from the Philippines.  Whether it’s the unspoken rule of eating with utensils as opposed to hands or the systematic rejection of speaking Tagalog in the workplace, there’s a constant rejection they’ve faced in their assimilation to the US of A. My mom hasn’t been able to petition any of her family members in her 30 years here.  My dad hasn’t been able to import his art credentials into any network of people who’ve been able to provide him a steady income.

Part of being an immigrant seems to be dealing with failed importations.

Rejection of the practice of going to church is another failed importation, but I don’t see it that way.

My ReligionA Culturally-Catholic Agnostic

I don’t mean to shoot down the importation of or break up Filipino traditions when I refuse to go to mass.

I feel like I embody the best of what my mom and dad taught me without having to go.

At this point, going to any church-related function is more about celebrating family and their traditions, but not so much the Catholic faith.  At best, I’m culturally Catholic.

I describe myself otherwise as agnostic, which means I don’t know if a God exists, and if he/she does, I hope I’m on the deity’s good side.

My spirituality is simple.  Essentially, the golden rule, but with a hint of karma: doing good whenever I could to whoever whenever, expecting the rewards to come in many other ways if not directly.

I’d like to believe in all gods and idols from all cultures and societies and that they make one beautiful synthesis.  But then maybe they don’t.  Maybe there are no super-beings or karma.  Maybe religion is all just a human artifact that in most societies had originally been a source of inspiration but in recent times has been adapted for all kinds of purposes from indoctrination to liberation.  I really don’t know.

I don’t love or hate religion or religious people, I respect them and their practices until they start using it as a means of coercion.

The interaction between Mary and my Tita Ming was a mirror of the type of interaction that I’d had with my own parents for the past decade.  I never wanted to go to church;  my dad and mom shaming and arguing with me ensued.

We’ve done this for 10 years, so it wasn’t a shock to them when I decided not to go to mass this Christmas.  I feel like going to church has always been an activity I’ve just gone “through the motions” with.

I’ve generally gone to Christmas and Easter mass celebrations, only as a way of appeasing my parents, but in recent years, I’ve started to recognize the cultural value of going to church.  I like “seeing who is there,” especially if it is at my grade school elementary school’s church.  I appreciate the a sense of “community”, home, gathering, but other than that going to church is something that is part of my past.

I know that I can get on board with some of the values and lessons preached by Catholicism.  This is a sharp contrast to a time earlier in my 20s when despite being a confirmed Catholic I outright laughed and rejected the idea of anything to do with religion.

But I realized, that I can get on with “being a man for others” and serving those in need — things I did learn were Catholic if not perhaps just humanistic values.  Whether it was, soup-lines, the community services, the canned goods drives, I lived in a world where “actions speak louder than words.”  And I remain committed to that.

I always felt like it was more important to live what was preached about in these religious lessons.