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Philippines: Christmas after Typhoon Haiyan

20 Dec 2013

Generosa outside her house with her grandchildren. (c) Vincent Henson/HelpAge InternationalChristmas is big in the Philippines. Filipinos start putting up their yuletide decorations the moment the name of the month ends in "ber" (yes, as early as September!).

Christmas lanterns line the streets packed with people on their way to church to catch the daily midnight mass.

The sweet smell of freshly baked Christmas rice cakes outside churches wafting through the evening air calls out to every passer by. Colourful fairy lights on trees and houses seem to dance to the tune of carols sung by children going from house to house.

No Christmas decorations

This is a typical scene that you would see everywhere in the Philippines right now. Everywhere but here.

As I negotiate my way through the damaged houses in Barangay Mahawak in Medellin, Northern Cebu, I notice there are no Christmas decorations anywhere. You won't find fairy lights either, since there is still no electricity here. Somehow it feels like the typhoon also blew away far more than just people's houses.

I eventually find my way to Generosa's house, a four by six feet shack made out of salvaged materials. Generosa, 78, tells me that her grandchildren rebuilt it from the scattered pieces of their house and whatever scraps they could find after the typhoon. She lives with and takes care of her five grandchildren.

I cannot begin to imagine how all six of them manage to sleep inside this tiny hut. She is raising them all by herself, since their father works as a rickshaw driver in another town, and only manages to send money to support them every now and then.

Kindness of neighbours

Generosa used to be a domestic worker, but she is no longer able to work because of her arthritis. She relies on the kindness of her neighbours to support her and her grandchildren. I see this kindness in action when I arrive, as one of her neighbours is installing the solar panel and lamp she received from HelpAge's distribution of DFID shelter materials for her.

Generosa tells me that she managed to evacuate just moments before the typhoon hit. She said that in all her years, this was the strongest typhoon she has ever experienced. The wind was so strong they were being pelted by sand from the shore, and even the rain itself was salty.

I asked her how she felt at that time, and she begins to cry. Then all of a sudden, all her neighbours around us were crying with her. Immediately I regretted asking the question. Even one month after the typhoon, it is still too soon.

Community Christmas spirit

I changed the topic and asked her what her plans are for Christmas. Generosa said that she doesn't have money for their Christmas Eve dinner. However, she is still very happy and thankful this Christmas. Her eyes glowed with joy again. She said that no matter what, Christmas will always be a happy occasion, and she is looking forward to celebrating it with her family.

It seems that my fears are unfounded. It was foolish of me to assume that Christmas was about the decorations and the lights. The Christmas spirit here is still very much alive. I see it in the kindness and empathy of Generosa's neighbours – how people who have so little can give so much. I see it in these people's astounding sense of community.

I see it in Generosa, who despite all she has been through, still manages to smile and see the bright side of life, grateful for the time she will spend with her grandchildren. Haiyan may have blown away their houses, but it has failed to take away their spirit.

Donate now

In the UK

Our sister organisation, Age International, has launched an emergency appeal to support older people affected by Typhoon Haiyan.

Or you can text URGENT to 70004 to donate £5 to help older people in the Philippines.

In the USA

Our sister organisation, HelpAge USA, has launched an emergency appeal to support older people affected by Typhoon Haiyan.


If you live outside the UK and the USA you can donate to support older people affected by Typhoon Haiyan here.

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Author profile

Vincent Henson
Job title: Programme Officer

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These blogs are personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the views of HelpAge International.