Bent on making Christmas merry, the Philippines barrels through inflation

MANILA, Philippines — They came from across the city. Hundreds of thousands of people armed with bags, trolleys and a determination to haggle.

They wove between delivery trucks and long, open-air buses to navigate the dozens of bazaars that make up this central Manila neighborhood called Divisoria. Mariah Carey’s voice blared from speakers as they jostled past one another, eyes peeled for the cardboard signs announcing prices.

“No need to ask!” declared one store selling plastic toys for 10 Philippine pesos ($0.18) each. “All the same price!”

Christmas, the most revered holiday in the Philippines, was just around the corner. Inflation had soared to 8 percent, the highest since the Southeast Asian country was drawn into the Great Recession 14 years ago.

But little of this had dampened the Christmas spirit — or the culture of spending that’s evolved around it.

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After enduring one of the world’s longest and most stringent pandemic lockdowns, people in the overwhelmingly Catholic country were bent on throwing the big, splashy celebrations they had missed out on for two years, even if these would cost several times more than they used to.

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“It’s revenge spending on steroids,” said Nicholas Mapa, an economist at the analysis firm ING.

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As holiday shoppers flock to malls and markets, Manila's notorious congestion — “carmageddon,” as it’s called — has returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Shoppers flock to Divisoria, a bargain shopping district in Manila, on Dec. 11.

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At Divisoria on Sunday, a trio of Catholic nuns squeezed and shuffled their way through shoulder-to-shoulder foot traffic, scouring options for their convent gift exchange — the first since sisters in their community had died because of the coronavirus. A 28-year-old, who had been working overtime at a bank to shore up his Christmas budget, shelled out 1,000 pesos ($18.10) to buy new curtains for his mother, whom he hadn’t seen in two years.

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Mirza Padin, 41, stepped into a clearing after four hours of nonstop shopping, sweat dripping from the 90-degree heat. She works as a therapist, and most of the gifts in her trolley were for her clients, special-needs children.

“I just feel happy shopping, especially when it’s for other people,” Padin said.

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Mirza Padin, 41, a therapist, with bags full of soft toys for the children she works with.

Sisters Katrina and Nicole traveled from their remote convent outside Manila to search for presents. It was one of their first outings since the pandemic started.

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In the face of inflation, people are “downtrading” — shopping in traditional sari-sari convenience stores instead of at supermarkets; switching to cheaper brands; buying items in smaller quantities — but not dramatically cutting back, said Marie-Anne Lezoraine, an analyst at Kantar Worldpanel, a market research agency.

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The price of fresh produce has spiked in recent months, driving shoppers toward Balintawak Market in Quezon City, where meat and vegetables can be bought at wholesale prices.

North of Divisoria, an outdoor wholesale market known for cheap produce has drawn more customers as Christmas nears.

Levi Santos, 50, visited Balintawak one recent morning, standing guard over a trolley as his wife retrieved bags of groceries. The Santoses lived 40 minutes away and didn’t usually shop here. But prices were lower at Balintawak — a kilogram of onions went for $4.30, a dollar cheaper than where they were from — and Juliet Santos, 47, wanted to familiarize herself with the market before preparations began in earnest for the Noche Buena feast on Christmas eve.

The plan, she said, was to cook the same dishes they always have — beef stew, grilled fish, fried chicken — but cut down on portions to make the budget work.

“We’re doing everything,” said her husband, “to make sure we have the Christmas we want.”

Juliet Santos, a manicurist, said she usually cooks for 15 people on Christmas Eve, but inflation this year might force her to cut down to 10.

Juliet Santos shops at Balintawak Market.

The pace of spending in the Philippines is unsustainable, analysts say. Savings rates have started to drop, and the government recently lowered growth forecasts for 2023, when inflation is expected to worsen.

For many Filipinos, however, Christmas brings some magic that, for at least for a few weeks, can distract from the hard times that may lie ahead.

Onions at Balintawak used to go for less than $2 per kilogram, shop owners said. Now, they're at least twice as expensive.

Yolly Morelos, 64, came to Balintawak to buy items for a salad she was making for a church Christmas party. She'd leave out onions, she said.

Rose Miranda, 42, dances to Christmas music as she wraps up the graveyard shift at her vegetable stall.

More than 80 percent of the Philippines is Catholic, a legacy of Spanish colonization. Festivities are often centered on large family reunions and, more recently, on shopping.

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Like in the United States, retailers in the Philippines have advertised for the holidays earlier and earlier, a marketing tactic called “Christmas creep.” Decorations are set up as early as September, and some malls don’t bother to take them down come January, leaving Santa figurines and Nativity displays up year-round.

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The Philippines is known for having the longest Christmas season in the world, with decorations coming up as early as September.

Last year, Gian Santos, 13, didn’t go Christmas shopping because he hadn’t yet gotten the coronavirus vaccine. This year, he got to tag along with his mother to Divisoria, where he picked his own gift: a pair of imitation Nike sneakers, stamped with the logo of luxury brand Louis Vuitton. He swore he’d seen basketball superstar Michael Jordan wear something similar before.

“It’s such a cool design,” Santos said, grinning. He’d debut them at Christmas Mass.

Nearby, Rhiann Morallos, 7, had also set her eyes on what she wanted: a chunky digital watch in her favorite color, lilac. Looking at the price tag of 150 pesos ($2.70), her mother, Anne Alvarado, 27, frowned and asked if perhaps she’d like to choose another option. Maybe one of the thinner watches that were going for 100 pesos? They had ones with Hello Kitty on them, said Alvarado, a stay-at-home mom married to a welder.

The girl shook her head, tightening the watch around her tiny wrist. Christmas lights reflected off the watch face as she inspected it in the air, eyes widening.

Alvarado sighed and reached for her wallet.

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Editing by Alan Sipress, Olivier Laurent and Reem Akkad.