Christmas is the time of year when many people line up at the Post Office to ship gifts to far-flung loved ones across the country, maybe even the world. In the Philippines, this practice is not just customary, but a state policy called the Balikbayan Program.

Balikbayan, which is the Tagalog word for “homecoming,” was first coined by President Ferdinand Marcos in 1973 when he launched a series of policies to encourage the large number of overseas Filipino workers to return home for Christmas in the Catholic country. He hoped they would spend their hard-earned foreign currencies in their home country, helping to bolster the Filipino economy. But, if they were not able to make it home, then he encouraged them to send tax-free “balikbayan boxes” in their place. 

Balikbayan boxes are typically 3-foot-by-3-foot-by-3-foot boxes stuffed full of canned goods, candy bars, packaged cookies, toothpastes, deodorants, sweatshirts, shoes, and many other items. 

Today, approximately half-a-million balikbayan boxes are shipped to the Philippines each month by Filipinos working overseas––and this number only increases further around Christmastime. Whole industries exist around the logistics of shipping balikbayan boxes: for example, in Houston, where 2.5 million Filipino immigrants live, companies like Forex Texas have been operating since the mid-1990s to safely ship balikbayan boxes to the Philippines. (These box companies are not uncommon in various Filipino enclaves across America.) 

Balikbayan boxes are not just impressive economic operation, they also are a certified cultural practice and pop culture meme. Filipino comedian Mikey Bustos sang about balikbayan boxes in a video parodying Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”:

“I got my balikbayan box, I waited for it for 2 months. I bet it’s full of awesome stuff. Some Colgate and new briefs, imported corn beef, I got my balikbayan box, so full of imported products, I know I will feel so sosyal parang foreigner lang, thanks to my Mommy. I’ll have Nikes on my feet!”

In this episode of Gravy, producer Katie Jane Fernelius examines the histories underlying the balikbayan box. She speaks with Royal Sumikat, a Filipino artist in Houston, who designed a whole exhibit based on the box. Royal draws upon her experience as a child in the Philippines receiving these boxes from her dad and reflects upon the economic and political realities that forced her dad to work overseas. Jade Alburo, a librarian at UCLA who focuses on the study of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. discusses the impact of American colonialism in the Philippines and how it inspired what items are most coveted for balikbayan boxes. Gravy also explores how to frame the importance of balikbayan boxes to Filipino families living across borders.

We thank the following individuals for help with this episode:
Royal Sumikat
Jade Albur
Christy Panis Poisot

Featured music in this episode includes:
Talang Patnubay (Silen),
 Christmas in the Philippines, Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company – Smithsonian Folkways
Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit, Christmas in the Philippines, Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company – Smithsonian Folkways
“Calisson,” by Blue Dot Studios
“We Collect Shiny Things,” by Blue Dot Studios
“Waltz and Fury,” by Blue Dot Studios

The image is from Royal Sumikat’s exhibit in Houston, Texas.