Dubai: With the Christmas season just around the corner, many expats are expected to return to their home countries to spend the holidays with their families and loved ones. Some have even booked their tickets well in advance to secure a cheaper rate.
For those unable to make the journey, the UAE ensures that expats residing in the country feel a sense of home away from home. The spirit of Christmas permeates malls, offices, and hotels, though, unfortunately, I haven't experienced it in its true spirit as the people who matter most to me are thousands of miles away.
Nevertheless, celebration is a must. Starting on the 1st of December, we begin looking for Christmas decorations in our storage, purchasing new ones, and decorating our homes. This ritual somehow brings the spirit of Christmas to life, offering simple joy and bringing smiles to our faces.
Between the 1st and 23rd of December, friends, colleagues, and church mates organize small parties, often held in parks. We contribute food and prizes for games, spending the entire day creating as much fun as possible, exchanging gifts, and trying to capture the festive vibe we used to have back home. It serves as a source of strength for us, helping to overcome the feeling of homesickness.
Yet, deep inside, I feel a sense of guilt for celebrating when my children long for my presence. I wish I could be with them during the Christmas season, just like other kids' parents. I refrain from sharing pictures of the celebration on social media because I don't want them to think I'm enjoying myself without them, which is far from the truth.
Cesar Valondo with his family back in the Philippines
On Christmas Eve, it has been my vow to be nowhere but home, engaging in phone video calls with my kids back home. Since there is a four-hour difference between Dubai and the Philippines, I make sure to be online before 8:00 pm Dubai time to join them virtually for Nochebuena (Christmas Eve), leading them in prayers and sharing a meal, albeit virtually.
This situation has been my reality since 2005, and here's why:
First Christmas away from my family
In September 2005, I decided to move to the UAE to seek greener pastures. Despite numerous job offers, I kept declining, hoping for a better one until my visa expired. I weighed my options of whether to stay or return home for Christmas – and staying prevailed. I didn't want to return home a failure and empty-handed. I told myself that missing one Christmas away from my family was a small price to pay for providing a brighter future for them.
At that time, my sorrow was clouded by the noble cause I had in mind for them. When I finally reached home, the reality sank in, and I found myself in tears, struggling to utter a word to my roommates. I promised myself that it would be the last time I spent Christmas away from my family.
Christmas back home became elusive
My patience finally paid off, and I got an offer with Gulf News, officially joining in 2006. I knew I wouldn't be around for another Christmas as I would be serving my probation. Just like the previous year, I wept in silence, feeling guilty and helpless for not being with my family.
The following years presented a dilemma as both kids started schooling. I had to choose between Christmas and the school break, with neither being an ideal option, but the latter making more sense. I could spend more time with them, attending school ceremonies as my children always finished with high honors. I needed to be there to show my support and celebrate their early triumphs in their studies. This has been the case until 2022 – Christmas celebration with my family became just wishful thinking.
The price I paid
Over the years, I learned to harden my feelings as Christmas approached. My children, too, became accustomed to it – a bitter pill to swallow. As a father, I know my obligation doesn't end with providing for them; I need to be present on special occasions, especially birthdays and Christmas, when families come together to celebrate. In that regard, I feel like a failure, and that leaves a hole in my heart until now. The sad part is, there is no taking it back – I will forever carry the burden.
Blessed with another child
In March 2018, I was blessed with another child, my fourth – finally, a boy. Five years on, I found myself in the very same situation as many years ago. The bitter memories of the past haunted me like a nightmare. And just when I thought I could finally make it, Covid-19 broke out. Many companies were on the receiving end, and uncertainties and complications arose regarding my supposed Christmas celebration with my family.
This year seems to be another missed opportunity, as I have already utilized my annual vacation to attend my daughters' college graduation ceremony. I am looking forward to creating good memories of Christmas celebrations with my family, especially with my little boy, and not depriving him of it the way I have deprived his three sisters.