Like many family men in the Philippines and elsewhere, Shok Ariola spends the 25th of December each year with the people dearest to him. For him, it is the time they enjoy not only each other’s company but the gift of each other, a time to quiet themselves down and just reflect.
To the average Filipino, Christmas means any or combination of these things: crowded malls, roads turning into giant parking lots, parties left and right, and yet another excuse to stuff oneself with roasted suckling pig otherwise known as lechon.
It’s also that one magical day in the calendar when children of all ages transform into little millionaires, and grownups become big-time paupers.
We can blame culture for this. Once old enough to walk, kids are taught to ask gifts from godparents whose names they can barely recall, and whom they will likely never hear from again until next year. The spiritual aspect of godparenting is all but lost.
Sadly, the focus here is on getting, hardly on sharing, on acquisition rather than on oblation. If the act of giving is emphasized at all, it is often with the expectation that the giver will get something in return. It is politics in microcosm.
Giving is back
The “exchange gifts” thousands of houses and offices are holding across the country this season is in reality just a cutesified form of barter. Only it’s more mechanical.
And Michael, who fondly goes by the name Shok, who is one of the top leaders of a Catholic community for families, wants this cycle broken. For many years now, he, his wife Carel, and two children Andrea and Caleb have been on a mission to restore the essence of Yuletide sharing.
“On Christmas Eve, we go around distributing food among our less fortunate brothers and sisters, those who live in the streets,” he said.
It all began when the Ariolas realized one day that Christmas would catch them preparing enough noche buena to feed a small village. In other words, more than what a family of four people could possibly consume.
So they vowed that from then on, no food would go to waste by sharing it with homeless families who would otherwise sleep that chilly night off hungry, not feeling the “spirit of Christmas” everyone around them were celebrating.
“At first, we started with ten food packs. The next year it became 25, then 50, and so on,” explained Shok.
Though the Ariolas also observe other Christmas customs like hanging stockings for Santa Claus, waking up early at dawn for the traditional novena Masses, it’s this one that pushes them out of their comfort zones that they look forward to and enjoy most, especially the kids.
For Shok, it is not so much about the meals they share as the love they make them feel. It is less about the present they give to others than their presence with others, “the last, the least, and the lost.”
And he hopes that through their example, more families will have the courage to “go out to the peripheries,” not necessarily only during Christmas but every day.
“I exhort you to open your stables and allow them to witness the birth of Jesus Christ in your family just as how Mama Mary and Joseph opened [the] stable for the shepherds to witness the glory of our king, Jesus,” he said.
According to Shok, when a person opens his home to families in need for them to witness the birth of Christ, kings follow, bearing gifts.
His wife echoes the same sentiment, saying: “[Christmas is] more about sharing, in little ways or big ways. We hope that families spend time knowing more about Christ and being grateful. It’s the best time to teach about love and sharing to children. “
And if Shok has one wish five to ten years from now, it is to see his family still living out the message of Christmas and fulfilling their mission together.
“Carel and I will be looking at Caleb and Andrea, praising the Lord, because they have learned not only to generously share their resources, but they have generously opened their hearts for those that are in need,” he added.
The foundation of friendship
Shok knows this is only possible with the help of Carel. He credits his wife as that one person in his life who gives him focus, cheers him on, and knows what he needs even before he himself does.
“Early in our married life, we realized that we were in this together, that we’re after what’s best for our family. It never became a competition for us, because we knew we were playing for the same team,” he said.
While Shok admits that his marriage is far from being completely serene, he takes comfort in the fact that Carel and him view it as partnership that aspires for the good of each other and their children.
“For the past 20 years, I’ve learned that friendship is a great foundation for any relationship … Being with Carel has taught me that love is active pursuit, not just feeling … that love is wanting only the best for her, helping her reach heaven at all expense,” he added.
Shok consider himself blessed that he has a partner who will hold his hand when he feels down, assuring him, “We can do this together.”
“Nothing can go wrong if you’re with the person God intended you to be with,” Shok stressed.
For Carel, the “destiny” of being with Shok wasn’t apparent at first. “We started off as friends, so there were really no love at first sight impressions or kilig moments for about one year when we met.” She added that her first impression of him was that he was serious about serving God yet “fun to be with.”
Wanted: Quality time
It wouldn’t be long before the best qualities of the San Bedan came to the fore in the eyes of the Lasallian. “Shok is known for his sense of humor and his ability to make heavy things look light. … I also always feel safe when he is around. Sort of like a comfort zone,” Carel mused. On September 29, 2003, they tied the knot.
Fourteen years of marriage and two kids after, their greatest learning is the need to “savor each moment,” as Carel says.
“We need to invest time learning about each other and nurturing gifts especially those of our children,” she added.
When asked to give advice to young families, Carel is all about quality time. “Spend time together as a family. Create memories of learning, joy, love and sharing always so that our children will have good memories and build better families when they grow up.”
Ultimately, that’s what puts the “warm and cozy” in Christmas.