Typhoon Haiyan

Haiyan survivors in Tacloban do their best to find solace in Christmas

Typhoon survivors in Tacloban still trying to piece their lives back together summon up courage to find solace in the festive season

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 9:30pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 9:30pm

When Super Typhoon Haiyan tore through the southern Philippines last month, destroying towns, lives and livelihoods, the early Christmas decorations did not stand a chance.

Maria Rose, a Filipino sociologist, had set up early for this year's festivities. Nothing is left.

"The typhoon destroyed my tree and decorations. But what's important now for Christmas is that I'm together with my family," said Rose.

Tacloban, the Philippine city that suffered the worst devastation from the super typhoon, which killed more than 6,000 and affected the lives of 11 million, is tentatively trying to regain its Christmas cheer.

But when bodies are still being recovered at an average of 25 a day and survivors are busy rebuilding their lives, it's hard to muster that spirit.

"Christmas will be very different," said Alan Ibanez, a resident of Tolosa, a town 25 kilometres outside Tacloban.

"Almost every family is in shock. In Tacloban, I know a nine-member family where only one survived. How do you think she can celebrate?

"I see the woman going every day to the mass grave where her loved ones are buried.

"There are mothers without children and children without mothers. Now everyone is just fixing their lives."

Some survivors have found decorations amid the rubble and are putting up their own Christmas trees outside what's left of their houses. And many residents who left the city to seek refuge with relatives elsewhere in the Philippines are trying to come home for the festive season.

"People are coming back for Christmas. I have one family member who is staying with me who came back yesterday," said Neil Benedict Montejo, a local business owner.

The dawn masses, which take place every morning starting nine days before Christmas Day, are an important tradition in the Philippines. This year they have taken on extra poignancy in the wake of the disaster as Tacloban residents - 98 per cent of whom are Catholic - turn to their faith for comfort.

On the first day of the masses, thousands walked in darkness towards their damaged churches to give thanks and offer prayers for their loved ones.

"Before we had Christmas parties where we would exchange gifts, but now there won't be any. What's important is for us to attend mass, thanking God that we survived," said Rose.

Most survivors are entirely dependent on aid and will miss out on eating the lechon - or suckling pig - that usually crowns their Christmas feast. "Almost all the pigs have died," said Ibanez.

Those who no longer have houses will celebrate Christmas in the halls and classrooms that now serve as evacuation centres.

Government organisations have made an effort to boost Christmas spirit.

Lanterns set up by the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority around the St Nino parish and Tacloban airport will light up the city, which is still mostly reliant on generators.

A 17-metre Christmas tree has been erected on the grounds of Tacloban city hall by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology. Prisoners created decorations out of used water bottles and galvanised iron pipes left behind by the storm.

It will be an improvised Christmas this year in Tacloban, but for those who survived Haiyan, it is a chance to be thankful for what they still have.