The Filipino Christmas Tradition of the Balikbayan Box
This month’s columnist looks at the Filipino Christmas tradition of the balikbayan box
As with a lot of Filipino families, saying “I love you” was not common in our household. Yet, a love that the Philippines unapologetically shares is love for the Christmas holidays. From September onwards, Christmas songs echo in shopping malls; from universal classics like Joy to the World to ballads that always seem to centre around longing for someone to remember you during the season. With over ten million overseas Filipino workers, it is unsurprising that this yearning has become universal across the country's more-than-7000 islands. There’s always a loved one missing from the Nochebuena.
While distance prevents millions from personally participating in holiday traditions, one that has formed due to this is the balikbayan box (repatriate box). The big boxes are filled with everyday items like pasta, toothpaste, toys, and clothes, with the overseas senders gathering the gifts over months. While they are sent throughout the year, many prepare them to arrive just in time for the holidays.
When asking elder overseas Filipinos about why the tradition lives on, answers coincided in a harmonious notion: there is something different about letting someone know you haven’t forgotten them through a physical item. Something you’ve specifically bought for them and packaged meticulously with wrapping paper, the recipient's name labelled in bold letters. In the days of social media, it would seem easier to blur the agonising distance between families, but sometimes this makes it worse. It only makes it easier to see everything you’re missing.
The boxes help aid this pain from both sides. The family members in the motherland receive a physical notion of their relative’s love, whereas those overseas get the reassurance that they will not be forgotten. Not because of the gifts themselves, but the happiness they bring. Seeing relatives' smiles in video calls, knowing that you’ve somehow caused this joy, however temporary, closes miles of distance despite not being able to (as the rough translation of ‘balik bayan’ reveals) “come home.”
Having experienced the tradition from both perspectives – waiting for boxes in the Philippines as a child longing for her parents, and as a teenager buying her cousins’ favourite chocolates in the UK – it taught me that love is beyond words. Love is about remembering, despite your surroundings compelling you to a world so different from home. It’s about not letting distance become a hindrance, but a source of unwavering inspiration.