The Gift of Christmas

Namamasko – the act of visiting someone so that he or she may share his or her “blessings” or “fortune”

A grandchild might go to his grandfather on Christmas Day and receive a gift of money. An impoverished woman might visit the house of a charitable widow hoping for money or a bag of nonperishable food.

It’s Christmas in the Philippines. The namamasko-ers come in constant waves: little children cluster together in rags; impoverished adults stand behind street urchins, hardship etched into their faces; slovenly teenagers huddle on the outskirts of the masses, an air of youthful pride about them.

It’s somewhat uncomfortable handing off coins to hands on the other side of a barred door, hands that belong to smeared faces and imploring looks. An endless stream of open palms come up to meet mine, eagerly awaiting whatever I might place in them. I thrust my hand through the bars repeatedly, reminding myself that my single day of discomfort is nothing compared to their daily lives. After the first dozen handouts or so, I overcome the shock.

Living in the San Francisco Bay, bums are no strange sight to me…but even seeing handfuls on multiple street corners is nothing compared to the ceaseless influx of people on the stair landing before me. I’ve done volunteer work before, and it’s always left me with that warm tingly feeling you get when you perform a good deed. This feels different; this feels more significant somehow. It’s a surreal experience to steadily look these strangers in their hungry eyes. They won’t turn away until they have something in hand. I can’t turn away because my conscience weighs heavy on me.

Just 10 pesos to each little child brings out a smile or a softly spoken “Salamat po.” Thank you, ma’am. Some little children try to sneak in a second and third “gift.” Quelling my irritation at the children trying to outsmart me, I pretend not to notice; there’s plenty to go around. In a country with an ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, one never knows how much of an impact these little sympathies have.

I estimate that we give out about 5,000 PHP today. It seems like a lot, but it’s a mere 100 USD. It’s a lot for those who live below the poverty line here. I know they will move on to the next house, and the next, and the next. It reminds me how much I take for granted, and reminds me to be even more grateful for what I have.

This Christmas, I’m grateful for the little things. For having my own bed. For having two parents who have been ever-present and involved throughout my life. For never having felt the fear of going hungry or having no one to turn to. For having a grandmother instill in me that the giving spirit gives a giver far more than he or she gives away.