Food, festivity, and Filipino family values

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 13 minutes

In Filipino culture, family is everything.

So, when Vanessa Villareña learned about the plight of Afghanistan’s refugees earlier this year, she wanted to do something to help - however small. “It’s important for me to support the refugees as they have been through enough,” she says. “As an immigrant myself, I know how hard it is to adjust to another place. I know I cannot compare myself to them, I just wanted to help within the reach of my capabilities.”

A Red Cross volunteer already, Vanessa signed up for the Red Cross Journey and ‘walked’ the 80 km distance from the Naf River to Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh - all within her home suburb of Panmure.

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 13 minutes

In Filipino culture, family is everything.

So, when Vanessa Villareña learned about the plight of Afghanistan’s refugees earlier this year, she wanted to do something to help – however small. “It’s important for me to support the refugees as they have been through enough,” she says. “As an immigrant myself, I know how hard it is to adjust to another place. I know I cannot compare myself to them, I just wanted to help within the reach of my capabilities.”

A Red Cross volunteer already, Vanessa signed up for the Red Cross Journey and ‘walked’ the 80 km distance from the Naf River to Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh – all within her home suburb of Panmure.

Described as a ‘fitness challenge with a difference’, the Red Cross Journey is an annual fundraising event that encourages participants to cover a set distance while raising money for Afghan refugees. Vanessa managed to raise $300 for her own efforts, contributing to New Zealand’s overall effort of $46,527.

Without a car of her own, she found it easy. “I enjoyed it so much. My walk is just part of my daily routine. All the bus stops are kind of far from where I live, and that’s how I accumulated the steps I needed. If I am not going to the shop, I walk around the local neighbourhood to ensure I still have enough steps even on the day I am supposed to rest.”

She’s already planning to take on another virtual journey: the 145 km distance from Damascus to Beirut.

Vanessa has been working as a retail volunteer at Panmure’s Red Cross store for almost two years. Although her time is unpaid, she loves the job. “I get to interact with different kinds of people every day, and it opens up my mind even more on the environment and world that I am in. I also get to meet people with the same interests as mine, and they are very helpful and open to anything that I might need.”

Vanessa and coworkers at Panmure Red Cross

She especially enjoys her fellow volunteers. “The team that we have in the shop is so lovely. We all come from different backgrounds and speak different languages, but we are all tight. We share everything we know from the country we are from, which makes us well-informed about each other’s backgrounds and cultures. I am one of the youngest volunteers, and for me, it is a privilege to get to work with them.”

Vanessa migrated to New Zealand from the Philippines in 2018 with her mother, younger brother, and sister. Her father had settled here two years previously to work as a tower painter. When given the opportunity to bring his family over, it was a no-brainer. “He knew it would be better for all of our futures, especially for us kids,” Vanessa says. “We would have better education here and better health care, but also, we would be living together again.”

Her former home – Quezon City – is the original capital of the Philippines. Located directly northeast of Manila, its population of 2.9 million makes Quezon the country’s most populous city. It’s known as the Philippines’ hub of information technology, entertainment, and history.

Despite the pull of better opportunities in New Zealand, leaving their beloved homeland wasn’t easy. Vanessa says their life in Quezon City was simple, but they had everything they wanted – including six toy poodles. “We had family everywhere, and we never missed any holidays or celebrations together,” she says. “Everything there just seemed so lively, and you could talk to your neighbours anytime. There are lots of places to hang out as well – malls, food parks, recreation centres, museums, parks, theme parks, carnivals, and arcades.”

Arriving in Auckland without any furniture or essential appliances, the family initially relied on the kindness of strangers to settle in. Vanessa’s mum managed to find a Facebook group gifting household items to the local Filipino community.

Three years on, the family has adjusted to their new life and are now looking forward to officially becoming Kiwis.

This time of year is particularly special for the Villareñas. In traditional Filipino culture, Christmas is a time for food, festivity, and being together. It’s also one of the biggest – and longest – celebrations of the year.

Christmas in Quezon

In the Philippines, Christmas festivities start on all the months ending in ‘ber’ – September, October, November, December. This means that from the first of September, Christmas songs are blasting in stores and decorations are going up. Christmas trees and parols (Filipino Christmas lanterns) adorn every street, along with dozens of outdoor nativity scenes. Firework displays and light shows are also part of the countdown to Christmas. It’s also a great time for children to earn a little extra pocket money by singing pangangaroling (Christmas carols).

Vanessa has fond memories of her Christmases growing up. “We would knock at houses and sing in front of sari-sari stores (small convenience stores). At the end of the pangangaroling, we would split among ourselves the money that we managed to collect,” she says.

Christmas carols are also sung at family gatherings, with younger family members receiving gifts and money in return.

With just five family members here, Christmas is much quieter than it would be back home. It’s one of the things she misses most about the Philippines. But it’s no less merry. “I can safely say that celebrating these holidays seems a lot quieter and less lively. It is just not the same as we are used to. But we love it anyway because we are celebrating it with family,” Vanessa says. “The thing we are most grateful for is that we are living together all year with no one having to fly abroad to work. The only difference is the number of people we celebrate it with.”

Villarena family in Auckland

With a strong Philippine community in Auckland, they are still able to attend traditional Christmas services such as Simbang Gabi, or Christmas Novena. This nine-day series of masses begins on the 15th of December and continues until midnight on the 24th. Completing the nine days means your wishes will come true, Vanessa explains.

Another time-honoured Christmas tradition they have managed to maintain is the food. The extended Christmas season is made all the more special with some unique festive dishes, many of which carry their own cultural significance.

Sticky food is central to the family theme; Vanessa explains that the stickiness symbolises people coming together and staying together. Some of her favourites during Simbang Gabi include bibingka, a sweet coconut-rice cake made with coconut cream, sugar, and ground rice. The cake is cooked in a clay pot lined with leaves and topped with shredded coconut, butter, and brown sugar. A similar dish is puto bumbong, a purple rice cake made by pouring rice, coconut milk, and sugar into a bamboo tube and then steamed. The super-sweet cake is then served hot with grated coconut, butter, and sugar.

Other favourites during the lead-up to Christmas include quezo de bola (stuffed cheese) and hamon (wet-cured ham). “Christmas or New Year, we always have sweet ham on the table to enjoy with the rest of the family,” Vanessa says.

The ‘ber’ season preceding Christmas may already seem long, but the Christmas spirit continues long after the 25th with decorations remaining on display for months.

Back here in Panmure, Vanessa and her family have managed to replicate some elements of their traditional Christmas with the families of her father’s work colleagues. “Nothing much has changed when it comes to interacting with them. When we are together it kind of feels like we are back home in the Philippines. All the food, noise, laughter, and language is the same,” Vanessa says.

Christmas is followed by another huge celebration: New Year. Media Noche marks the last night of the year with a feast that embraces a variety of traditions inherited from different cultures.

Vanessa explains that the day of Media Noche is spent preparing food. They also have their own superstitions and beliefs associated with the occasion. One of the most important of these is the preparation of round fruits for display on the table on New Year’s Eve. “We like making sure we have 13 different kinds of fruits that are circular in shape, which symbolises luck. These fruits generally include apples, oranges, grapes, melons, guavas, lanzones, rambutans, and chicos, among others. Those who feel the number 13 is bad luck will display 12 fruits instead,” she explains, and adds: “And depending on what year it is, we would all wear the deemed lucky colour of the year.”

Then comes the best part: the countdown. “During the countdown, all sorts of noises and music will be on max volume to welcome the new year,” Vanessa says. “Kids would also jump up and down in the hopes of growing taller that year!”

Round items are considered to bring good luck, especially coins. “My dad would often give us lots of coins to put in our pockets, and some would be thrown on the ground to symbolise wealth during the year,” she says. “Fireworks are also one of the things that lights up the sky during these times.”

Despite the turbulent year that Auckland has had, Vanessa is hoping this Christmas and New Year will be just as festive. In the meantime, she has big plans for her future as a Kiwi. Testament to her love of people, she hopes to study nursing when her residency visa is approved, and to stay with the Red Cross for as long as possible. “If given the opportunity, I would like to get involved some more outside the retail department and more on the disaster response team. I would very much like to work with them as a Youth Activator, as I really want more youth to get involved with what the Red Cross does. I just feel like there is so much more the youth can do once they set their minds onto it – and being involved will make the difference.”

Vanessa completed her First Aid course

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