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A Barangay Christmas

By David Haldane

Dec. 20, 2018

The thing that changed my mood, I think, was the man swinging a stick rifle with the coconut on his head.

Or maybe it was the group of women frantically massaging a phallic bar of fast-melting ice. Whatever it was, I came home from my first barangay Christmas party last night with an entirely new take on the day that Christ was born.

The truth is that I’ve never been big on Christmas parties. It’s not just that I’m Jewish. My problem with holiday gatherings, in general, is that too often they are stilted affairs imposing forced enactments of fun.

Not in the Philippines. It didn’t hurt, of course, that the barangay captain – spotting us hovering timidly at the entrance of the open-air gymnasium in which the event was held – immediately came over to introduce himself and usher us to the head table next to him. Nor was his gift of a large bottle of spirits unappreciated.

Ivy says she thinks all that was designed to encourage our financial participation in next year’s event. The thing is, though, that I don’t care; what I saw in that gymnasium was a colorful celebration of life and community brimming from start to finish with frolicking fabulous fun.

First came the games; everything from crazy dance fests pitting block against the block to the familiar sack races and more rarified contests involving the coconut-hobbled warriors and screaming ice-crazed wives. There were several synchronized dance performances by local groups who had obviously practiced for their presentations. One group that obviously hadn’t was the uniformed barangay police. And, finally, there was the complete abandonment of all order in favor of general disco madness led off by none other than yours truly and his lovely wife.

“Pssst,” Ivy said, waking me from an indulgent stupor theretofore unpenetrated by human words. “They want us to dance; first us, then everybody else.”

“But….,” I objected as she dragged me onto the dance floor. Suddenly we were dancing with the whole town looking on. And that’s when it struck me that this was, indeed, our new hometown.

In fact, hometown is what it was all about. It’s like this: virtually everyone in the world longs for the intimacy and familiarity that comes with living in a small community. But the trend in most places is exactly the opposite; more and more people inhabiting larger and larger cities growing increasingly impersonal with each passing day. The Philippines has solved the problem ingeniously by assigning every person in every city to what essentially amounts to a small neighboring town, namely their barangay. Thus every Filipino has a real hometown.

That was the perspective that overcame me last night as I watched the faces all around me lost in excitement and fun. Like any small town, our barangay has its own cast of characters including the town drunk, teenage dreamboat, and local parish president whose participation in the Christmas gala included publicly reminding partiers to attend mass at 4 a.m. The town also, of course, has its own legends and dramas, such as the foreigner who drunkenly threatened people with guns and the guy who recently stole a motorcycle without the key to start it.

Both ended up in the town pokey as guests of the bad-dancing cops.

I think I’m going to like it here.






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A former Los Angeles Times staff writer and winner of a 2018 Golden Mike award in radio broadcast journalism, David Haldane fell in love with the Philippines on his first visit there in 2003. A few visits later, he also fell in love with the beautiful young Filipina to whom he is now married and, with whom, he has returned many times. David has written extensively about his experiences in the Philippines for several publications including Orange Coast and Islands Magazine. Today he and Ivy, along with their eight-year-old son, Isaac, divide their time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Surigao City, Philippines. His award-winning memoir, Nazis & Nudists, recounts, among other things, the courtship of Ivy and finding a place to call home. For David that turned out to be at the tip of a peninsula marking the gateway to Mindanao where he and Ivy are building their dream home next to a lighthouse overlooking the sea. This blog is the chronicle of that adventure.






  1. John Reyes says:

    When I saw the picture of the man swinging a stick rifle with the coconut on his head, I was immediately reminded of a 1973 picture of Chuck Berry doing the original version of “Roll Over Beethoven”. Their poses are so eerily similar with one another from the shoulder canted down to the left foot turned upward. LOL

    I supposed it’s OK to attend Christmas parties while Jewish, as my wife also attends Christmas parties while Palestinian Muslim. 🙂

    • David Haldane says:

      You’re right, John, the resemblance is uncanny! So I guess you think God will forgive me for attending, eh? Thanks for the support…

  2. John Reyes says:

    Rob, not to sound know-it-all, I believe the word you’re looking for is “La Cucaracha” (the cockroach), a Mexican folk dance made famous among Filipinos who are excellent musicians and dancers in their own right, along with the cha-cha, rhumba, and tango by Xaviet Cugat, a Spain-born musician and his orchestra during his visit to the Philippines in the 50s. This is not to say, though, that Filipinos did not already know about the cha-cha, rhumba or the tango before Xavier Cugat came to town. Manila’s elite were already dancing the night away with the tango especially on New Year’s eve at the Jai Alai during the pre-war years. Xavier Cugat’s visit to the Philippines only served as nostalgic reminders of happy times gone by interrupted by World War II.

    As you may well know, Mexican dance like La Cucaracha and music like La Paloma are not the only things Filipinos borrowed from Mexico. Many things Mexicans are evident in Filipino language and culture today, and vice versa. This is because of the Galleon Trade that existed for 250 years (1565 – 1815) between Manila and Acapulco when Spain governed Islas de las Filipinas through Mexico, but you already knew that.

    But, for those who don’t, the semi-yearly trans-Pacific journey of the galleon ships, which, btw, were constructed of Philippine wood and crewed by both Filipino and Mexican sailors inevitably resulted in both colonies adopting some elements of each other’s culture. For the Philippines, perhaps the most notable is the Philippine peso, the same basic monetary unit used in Mexico and several other Latin American countries.

    A town in the province of Pampanga is called, Mexico, a word derived from Nahuatl, a language spoken in central Mexico since the 7th century. So are Nahuatl words that are adopted into Tagalog, to name a few: ,palenque, xocolati, camote, sili, nanay, tatay. Religious processions and fiestas in Mexico are exact replicas of the same found in the Philippines today. Mexico’s influence on Filipino culture is THAT strong!

    For Mexico, the Filipino palm wine called, “tuba” is sold in Acapulco. The best variety of mangoes grown in Mexico is called Manila mango. In my mind, though, the most impressionable result of the cultural exchange between the two colonies stemming from the Galleon Trade is reputedly the very first Filipino settlement in North America, specifically in the state of Louisiana in the 16th century.

    They were the sailors and laborers aboard the galleons who, for various reasons, did not want to return to the Philippines, or were attracted to white American women like many Filipino men are today LOL. They jumped ship as soon as they docked in Acapulco and disappeared into society like the modern day Filipino TNT (Tago ng Tago) that skipped his Visa. These sailors eventually settled in the bayous of Louisiana. They kept to themselves, practiced their native customs and traditions, subsisted on fish and did not mingle with the mainstream society. They were called Manila men by the locals.

    • John Reyes says:

      Correction: Paragraph 5 above, “the most impressionable” should read “the most impressive”. Sorry.

    • Wow, reminds me of a bar I used to frequent during my year in Mexico (in San Miguel de Allende, to be exact) called La Cucaracha. Ah, what a good year that was. Anyway, John, thanks for all the background; I knew, of course, of the Mexican influence in the Philippines but didn’t know all the details. I remember my first impressions upon visiting the Philippines for the first time; “It looks so familiar,” I thought. “This is the Mexico of Asia.” I still sometimes describe it that way to people who have never been here.

      • John Reyes says:

        You’re welcome David. Another important manifestation of the Philippines’ Mexico connection of which many Filipinos may not be aware is the life-size icon of of a dark-skinned, Jesus Christ known as the Black Nazarene. It was carved in dark wood by an unknown sculptor in Mexico and transported to Manila in the 17th century aboard a galleon ship. The Black Nazarene, believed to cure diseases by touching it, is housed in Quiapo Church in Manila. It is brought out of its shrine 3 times a year in 20-hours long procession, during which millions of devotees swarm the icon along the route to touch it with their handkerchief. I happened to be in Manila on vacation during one of its January processions and remembered that there were no taxis available nearly the entire day.

        • David Haldane says:

          Wow, I’d like to see that, John. In January? Do you know what day?

          • John Reyes says:

            David – It’s on a Wednesday January 9, 2019. The procession starts at 5:30AM at the Quirino Grandstand on Roxas Blvd. and ends at Quiapo Church some 20 hours later.

            Remember that there will be millions of people in the procession and along the way so be prepared accordingly. The Quirino Grandstand is located on Roxas Blvd. on Manila Bay. It is also within spitting distance of the Manila Hotel.

            I recommend that you stay at the Manila Hotel because of its proximity to Quirino Grandstand. If the Hotel is completely booked for your dates, try the H2O hotel located nearby. It’s not as fancy as the MH but it will do if you’re going to be in Manila for a couple of days. Do visit Intramuros and ride the calesa, you’ll be glad you did.

            I would’nt stray too far from the hotel on the day of the procession because you may not be able to find a cab that would want to drive you back to your hotel because of heavy traffic.

            There is also the Pan Pacific Hotel in Ermita close to where the action will be. It’s within walking distance of Robinson’s Mall, for Ivy’s shopping pleasure. lol A couple of blocks from PPH is the Diamond Hotel. Both hotels are within walking distance of the Quirino Grandstand. I’m giving you the names of these hotels in the vicinity of QG so you’ll have more options for booking purposes.

            Except for the H2O, I can vouch for the quality of the other 3 hotels I mentioned because we’ve stayed there at one time or another. They are all 5 stars.

    • Rob Ashley says:

      John: Interesting take and I do know how much of Mexican culture influenced Filipinos. i think the dance that I am talking about is indigenous to Samar and the Waray people… “The Kuratsa (of course I spelled it wrong above) is highly favored by the Visayan people especially the Waray people of the Eastern Visayan region in the Philippines. Strictly speaking, The Kuratsa must be done the amenudo-way; that is, only one couple dances it at a time.”

      And funny that you should mention “La Cucaracha.” It is perhaps the only Spanish song I know in its entirety. “La cucaracha, la cucaracha, ya no puede caminar, porque no tiene, porque le falta, marijuana que fumar. The cockroach cannot walk, because he does not have, because he lacks, marijuana to smoke.

      Cuando uno quiere una y es una que no lo quiere, es lo mismo si un calvo, en la calle encuentra un peine…la cucharacha, la cucharacha….” When a man loves a woman and she does not love him back, it is the same as a bald man finding a comb in the street.

      You have lots of info, particularly about tuba and the ships of Philippine wood that I never heard. Thank you for that. Lots of Spanish words in Cebu and the Bisaya language. It’s how I figured out what was going on when we lived in Cebu. Happy Holidays, Rob

  3. José says:

    Mr. Haldane, sorry it should read, ” no sin was committed”….(autocorrect, grrrrrr)

  4. Jay says:

    Hi David,

    I enjoyed reading your post and looking at the pictures. One of my unwritten articles in my brain is a Filipino vs. USA: Children’s Birthday. Filipino’s tend to take parties to another level. Usually a good time is had by most in attendance!



    • David Haldane says:

      That’s a good idea, Jay, I look forward to reading it. Our son recently celebrated his eighth birthday, but we cheated and took him to MacDonald’s.