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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

North Lawndale Woman’s Home A Brightly-Lit Tribute To Her Christmas Past In The Philippines

Margarita Bonife's house sticks out like a sore thumb in her neighborhood, but it is reminiscent of many houses in the Philippines during Christmas.

Margarita Bonife poses for a portrait in her yard.
Pat Nabong / Block Club Chicago
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NORTH LAWNDALE — It gets dark early these days, but one typically dimly-lit North Lawndale block is getting a little extra light.

Tucked between a house with a single string of Christmas lights and another house that’s illuminated by one porch light in the 1500 block of South Washtenaw Avenue sits Margarita Bonife’s home, shining brightly in the darkness.

Credit: Pat Nabong / Block Club Chicago
Margarita Bonife’s house sticks out like a sore thumb in her neighborhood, but it is reminiscent of many houses in the Philippines during Christmas.

Seventy-three-year-old Bonife’s small front yard is awash in color and decorations. Giant candy canes illuminate a path in her backyard. Steps leading to her front door are blocked by plastic gifts and Mrs. Claus and Santa Claus figurines. Technicolor balls, lights and ornaments hang from a tree that shades a glowing belen, a set of ornaments depicting the nativity scene that is present in almost all Filipino homes.

“It’s like I have to decorate for the whole neighborhood,” said Bonife in Filipino. “The fuse broke the other day.”

Her Christmas decorations usually rack up her electricity bill. This year, it overloaded, said Bonife, a now-retired nurse who came to the U.S. in 1971 for work.

Credit: Pat Nabong / Block Club Chicago
Margarita Bonife and her son Jay in Bonife’s kitchen.

As a nurse, she wasn’t just in charge of taking care of patients; she was also assigned to decorate her unit since her colleagues knew that her house conforms to almost every major occasion. Just a month ago, witches and pumpkins were taped to the walls of her house. On St. Patrick’s Day, her yard was covered in green. In February, hearts bedecked her home.

Although she looks forward to every occasion, “Christmas is the number one,” she said. And she goes all out every December to give joy to people passing by.

She does it “to help others when others are depressed” and hopes that “they will come out of their depression, come out of being so sad.” When someone sees her yard, she hopes it will bring them back to the last time they had a happy Christmas.

Decorating is Bonife’s form of therapy, she said. Since moving to the U.S. 47 years ago, she hasn’t celebrated Christmas in Borongan, Eastern Samar, a province in the Philippines where she grew up.

Credit: Pat Nabong / Block Club Chicago
It takes Margarita Bonife a week to finish decorating the interior and exterior of her home.

In the Philippines, where more than 80 percent of the population is Catholic, Christmas season holds great religious significance. It starts as early as September when shopping malls start playing festive songs and many people begin decorating their houses with parols (native lanterns), belens and thousands of lights.

Bonife’s own decorations remind her of Christmas time in her province, which defined her childhood. She hopes to recreate the Filipino spirit of Christmas and share it with her neighborhood.

“One teacher even thanked me,” said Bonife who lives near a school and often sees kids passing by her house. Sometimes, she catches them talking to the Santa figurine that sits in her yard, she said.

Credit: Pat Nabong / Block Club Chicago
Margarita Bonife’s front yard is crowded with Christmas decorations. Bonife said she has a story for every single one of them.

She credits her need to adorn everything to her father, who used to decorate their house, their village’s parties, festivals and even parade floats in Eastern Samar. It was a source of pride for their family, Bonife said.

“[Decorating] is part of my DNA,” she said. “Whatever [my father] was doing, I’m also doing here.”

And what she inherited from her father, she passed down to her son.

“At work, I’m the same way. I decorate my cubicle,” said Jay Querubin, whose first memory of his mom decorating was when he was six and she set up his grandmother’s Christmas tree. “[My co-workers] were saying, ‘Oh Jay you’re so festive.’ And I told my, I showed my boss, well I got it from my mom.”

Decorations worth thousands of dollars, collected over the course of 25 years, gather dust in Bonife’s basement, but only until the next holiday comes around. She recycles many of them, but adds something new every year.

Credit: Pat Nabong / Block Club Chicago
Margarita Bonife’s kitchen.

“I have to do a unique one [every year]; a thing that I haven’t had,” Bonife said. She used to handcraft many of her decorations but because of arthritis and her declining vision, she can no longer do much of that, so she usually just buys items on sale.

On Dec. 31, Bonife plans to take down the belen and the Santa Claus figurines and replace them with plastic champagne glasses, sparkling hats and paper trumpets to welcome the New Year. She will then go to Dollar Tree, buy Christmas decorations that are on sale and store her newly-bought items in the basement until it is time to take them out again next year.

Credit: Pat Nabong / Block Club Chicago
Margarita Bonife has a Christmas tree in every room.
Credit: Pat Nabong / Block Club Chicago
Margarita Bonife’s backyard features a second belen and candy canes.
Credit: Pat Nabong / Block Club Chicago
Margarita Bonife fixes a box in her basement where she stores her decorations.
Credit: Pat Nabong / Block Club Chicago
Margarita Bonife has two belens, which is a traditional Filipino Christmas decoration that depicts the birth of Jesus.
Credit: Pat Nabong / Block Club Chicago
Margarita Bonife’s house sticks out like a sore thumb in her neighborhood, but it is reminiscent of many houses in the Philippines during Christmas.

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