WARNING!! I wrote much more than I intended, and this got a bit longer than I intended. You may need to make a coffee before reading.

So Christmas Eve in the Philippines. It was a little wet, but I had a great time and thoroughly enjoyed. However I would like to share a little anecdote with you:-

I love Christmas Eve almost as much as I love Christmas its self. The expectation, the excitement and that lovely warm fuzzy glow you get when you know you have everything for the big day in order and all your boxes are ticked.

I am not particularly religious, in fact I struggle with most religions and as yet have not managed, even with a great deal of effort to achieve belief in any faith. Honest I have tried, and I continue to try to achieve the peace and that hummm… how do I say it… I don’t know how to put it. But when someone has belief, whatever the religion, they have something I don’t have, and I am envious of it, and I want it. I have spent much time in church, bible studies, prayer groups etc. for various Christian disciplines. I have read the bible (honest… well except numbers, I skipped that it was hard work). I started reading the Holy Quran, but commitments had me put it down for too long and I failed to pick it back up again. However being here in Qatar has given many opportunities to discuss Islam. Anyway, to summaries I believe in something, probably the same God as you, but I struggle with books of instruction. If we have been given free will, then we get to choose how we live our lives. How can you call it free will if you have to follow instructions? I have values, I have ethics and I have morals, and I am happy with what I have. If I have got it wrong, well I am going to a bad place when I checkout of this life. You got it right, I got it wrong, and I will be very sorry. Wow! Did I just go off on one? Sorry I digress, I was just outlining my belief status.

So…. Back to my anecdote. Victoria, Maegan and I decided we would all like to go to Midnight Mass Christmas Eve. Vic is Catholic and so she attends church anyway, but I am a special occasion’s only kind of guy. We started our evening in Albay park where they had rigged up some great covered food stands / temporary restaurants and erected a covered stage where live bands were playing. If it hadn’t been raining so hard this would have been outstanding. But the weather did, quite literally put the dampeners on things a little. The band played on, and we found a nice stall selling some excellent local dishes, and feasted while huddled under a tarpaulin covering our bench table. Yumm!! We had been approached from the moment we entered the park by kids begging. Not too much, but more than usual. We decided we would give to anyone having a go at singing Christmas Carols but anyone just holding out their hand got a shake of my head. Bear in mind we are talking about kids here probably looking to spend their easy gains at the stalls or to buy fireworks.

As I have said it was raining quite hard, and after having our evening dinner we started to head in the direction of the church at a brisk walk. We spotted a nice little cake stall on our way out, and decided to add a sweet to our evening feast. The stall was a nice cosy size, with a professional glass display unit showing off their fairs, a couple of tables and chairs. Turns out this stall was the local culinary collage stall, and boy do they bake a nice cake. Anyway as I was saying we spotted it and as we were entering the stall I noticed 4 teenage kids (2 boys, 2 girls early teens) sat at a table outside the stall. They were sheltering from the rain under the overhang of the stalls roof. Now look for all I know they could have been the children of multi-millionaires, but my guess, and this was based on a glance, and then a second glance, was that they probably had no, or very little money. They were not begging, but they were not eating, and it looked like the staff on the stall were kind of just tolerating them being there without them buying anything. I didn’t stare, but on my second glance this is what I surmised. Now these beautiful cakes were only around QR 3 (UK 50p) each, and I very quickly whispered to Vic that as it was Christmas, and as they were sheltering from the rain, I would like to buy them a cake each and was that ok with her. She was completely in favour of the idea so when we ordered I named our requirements and then told the staff to give the group of four teenagers whatever they would like. We were inside, they were outside and their reaction to the offer was to run away. This surprised me, but one young girl remained. The other 3 stopped about 10 steps away observing from a short distance. The girl cautiously looked at us, then looked in the display case. She happily selected her cake and took a seat. The other 3 gradually returned, and eventually took their pick out of the yummy selection of cakes, and sat back down with their friend. We never spoke, we hardly made eye contact, but I was happy that I had made their wet Christmas Eve a little more enjoyable, and when we left my Christmas Eve spirit was on a high. It was a small gesture, but it made Vic and me really happy and Christmassy.

Cathedral of San Gregorio Magno

Daytime image of the Cathedral of San Gregorio Magno

Leaving the park we fended off a few more kids running up and holding out their hands, and we crossed the road to the church. The service started at 10pm so we aimed to get there by 9:30pm to ensure we got a seat. On arrival at the church we realised how badly we had got this wrong. There were already people standing outside the doors of the 4 entrances. It was standing room only. We squeezed in and made our way down to the front of the church hoping beyond hope that we could at least find seats for Vic & Meg. Thus we ended up right at the front leaning against the wall waiting for Mass to start.

Now I am a rather large white guy with blond hair and blue eyes. Most in the church would assume I was American (wrong I’m English), and probably all would assume I had little or no Tagalog (the main Filipino dialect) and almost certainly I would have no Bicol (the local dialect). Of course they would be correct in thinking this about language, I am useless at anything other than English. And this is why they were probably a little confused (or at least looked confused) as to what I was doing in a church where the Mass would be in Bicol. I could feel that I/we were being stared at. We at this time were the only ones standing at the front, and I stood out like a sore thumb. Waiting for Mass to start I could feel people’s eyes staring at me whiling away time trying to figure things out about who I was, why I was there and what my relationship to Vic and Meg was.

No sooner had we decided to stop where we were, and stay standing at the front against the right wall of the church, when we got approached by a lady begging for money. It’s still not easy for me to guess the age of Filipinas because they always look so young even when they are my age. But I would guess 30’s or 40’s in years. She was quite short, most Filipinas are (Filipina by the way means a female Filipino). She had short black hair that looked like it had not been cut in a salon. She was wearing shorts a T-Shit, flip flops, and had a large pink backpack on her back. She seemed a little grubby, but only a little, and didn’t smell of anything nauseous or otherwise.

I was taken by surprise. I was a little shocked. We had just got into church, had just been focused on finding seating and making the decision to stay where we were, and bang out of the blue when we were least expecting to encounter a beggar, here was one. She was holing out her hand and had a kind pleading smile on her face. I was aware everyone, and I mean everyone in the church was looking at us by this point. I didn’t know what to do. I was embarrassed because I didn’t know what to do. I stared at Vic, visually questioning her as to what I should do. I glanced at the congregation who were all staring back, but that didn’t give me an idea about what I should do either. If I give to this one, is there going to be a hundred more come running around the corner. I had already given a small but reasonable amount out in the park. I shook my head at her. She gestured a little more with her hand, and boy did I have a dilemma on my hands. She nearly got me to open my wallet, but at the last moment I decided to be hard and turn her down based upon the fact we were in church where I was least expecting to encounter a beggar, and I was afraid there were going to be loads more. This was so embracing! Had I just looked like a complete bastard to everyone in the church, or is this what they all have already done before we arrived? I glanced at those seated again, got no idea from that if I had made the right call, and then stared at my feet feeling guilty.

Mass started, and I could understand 1 word in every couple of hundred. I got the odd word mainly because the occasional English word is thrown in where there is no Bicol equivalent. But overall during the sermon or whatever it’s called in a Catholic Church when the main chap stands at the front and preaches, I was able to get the gist of what the topic was.

I had spotted the beggar again. She was covertly hiding in the row we were standing next to. Crouched down in between the seating. Obviously those she was sat on the floor in front of could also see her, but rows back and forward world be unaware she was there, and I guessed more importantly the guys in charge didn’t know she was there either.

At first I was a little annoyed she was there. How dare she come into a church begging on Christmas Eve. I wanted her to go. Oh by the way, there were no other beggars as I had feared, it was only her. I tried to focus on what was being said by the priest (or VIP priest I think he was). I was trying to make it look like I was understanding every word the guy was saying by staring at him attentively. But the beggar kept catching my eye. I tried so hard not to glance in her direction. But she was right there in the corner of my eye even when I was looking at the priest. The Mass was long, my legs were tired. I was glad some kids had shuffled up on a bench to allow Meg to sit. And secretly I was hoping for it all to end so I could go home and put my feet up. Still she was catching my eye! She was doing nothing. Just crouched down seemingly listening.

Then I realised something. That pink backpack was probably all she had in the world. Its contents were probably her home. The church was dry, bright and perhaps she was just looking for something different on this, Christmas Eve? Maybe she was religious? Maybe she was just using this gathering of people to try and scrape together some money for food. The more I reasoned, the worse I felt about not giving to her. And I was feeling annoyed at myself, for having been annoyed at her being there. How dare I have such feelings against her! She had more right than I did to be there. At least she could understand it. Guilt was falling on me heavily.

Then something else struck me. The sermon was all about finding love in strangers. One of the things that allowed me to surmise this was his use of the phrase “Seek the love in strangers” in English. And he said it a couple of times. Suddenly I began to put the two together. Here he is telling people to seek the love in strangers, and here she is (a stranger to them all) hiding on the floor in the seating.

I am off to a BBQ in a moment so I am going to keep this shorter than I would if I was home all day today with nothing better to do than blog. Lucky you 😉 Anyway look Hypocrisy started to pop into my mind.

Hypocrisy – The false claim to or pretence of having admirable principles, beliefs, or feelings (Source: Bing Dictionary)

Here he was on Christmas Eve telling his flock to seek the love in strangers and other similar values. And there she was, a stranger, and she was getting no love from anyone. My mind was made up, I opened my wallet, got 1,000 pesos (about QR 100) ready, and made my mind up the moment there was a break in the sermon I was going to run along my row and pop it into her hand before everyone sat back down. The sermon stopped, but instead of them standing up which is what I was expecting everyone to do, they remained seated. But I was already on my dash. So now I was dashing in full view of everyone and once again a point of novelty for them. Half way across I discover this was the break to collect money for the church. Oh no, what would everyone think when I give to her and not the church? Argh! I kept up my dash until I reached her. Popped the 1,000 peso note into her hand wished her a merry Christmas, and tried to make it back to Vic and Meg in time to still give alms. Too late. But I checked with Vic and she had already given so that was ok. Phew! I glanced at the congregation, oh no! Had I offended them by giving to her? The looks I was getting made me feel like I had done something wrong.

Vic dug some snacks out of her bag and also offered them to her, but she was too afraid to venture over to us. Probably because she didn’t want those in charge to see her. The service eventually ended. Some immediately left, some rushed to the front to be sprinkled with holy water and to meet the priest. And the beggar lady came over to me and gestured with a glowing smile how happy she was, and indicated that she was going to buy food.

I may have messed up by giving to her, but I don’t care. We returned home and my Christmas Spirit was overflowing. Then I wondered if anyone else had helped her out? I didn’t care. I had given her the equivalent of a week’s wages, and she was going to have a happy Christmas. Then that word ‘Hypocrisy’ popped back into my mind. How could others sit there and listen to a sermon telling them to love and be loved by strangers, and on this night of all nights, not help out this lady. Anyway I felt great. Had a fabulous Christmas, and was happy that I had made a difference to a few peoples day.

Right I’m off to my BBQ now, bye for bye.