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For many Filipinos, Santa Claus looks like a uniformed delivery man schlepping a very big corrugated box.

Day 7 of Quartz’s 25 Days of Exchange
Image: Jordan Coelho for Quartz

During the month of December, millions of these so-called balikbayan boxes arrive on people’s doorsteps, shipped from the faraway poles where the 10 million migrant Filipinos reside around the world. The gigantic box filled with presents for an entire family is a holiday tradition in the Philippines, in line with the merry season of gift-giving in the largely Roman Catholic nation.

The word “balikbayan” is a Tagalog compound word that translates to “return [to] country.” As the most iconic symbol of the Filipino diaspora, the balikbayan box serves as an emotional bridge between parents and siblings who part with their families to earn a higher wage abroad collectively known as “Overseas Filipino Workers” (OFW).

Unlike the usual Christmas present, a balikbayan box is typically stuffed with a random assortment of everyday, household goods—canned meats, small electronics, gently used clothing, tubes of toothpaste, vitamins, toiletries, and of course, “imported” chocolates in bulk. Over 7 million balikbayan boxes arrive each year according to the latest Philippine Bureau of Customs survey, and thousands more are brought in by returning Filipinos who use the box as their check-in luggage. Balikbayan boxes come from countries with the largest migrant Filipino communities such as the US, UK, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Canada, and Australia.

For most, the price of items don’t really matter. Filipinos are known to treasure cans of Spam luncheon meat, Vienna sausages, Fita biscuits, Jif peanut butter, proudly displaying them on kitchen shelves and rationing them like they were truffles.

The ordinariness of these grocery-bought goods is by design, says anthropologist Clement Camposano. In a 2012 paper (pdf), Camposano posits that the assortment of seemingly random items convey a kind of intimacy among separated relatives. “These goods ‘map’ migrants back into the household economy by reproducing their labor and participation in their absence,” he writes. For example, sending a huge block of pasteurized cheese helps a mother feel like she’s still providing sustenance for her kids from faraway, a sleeve of Snickers bars could be a child’s reward for getting good grades in school.

With no weight restrictions (though the biggest box has a capacity of 130 lbs), filling a solid Christmas balikbayan box takes several months or even a whole year of planning. Frugal Filipinos watch for sales, clip coupons, and collect trial-size samples to fill a 24 x 18 inch box. The most astute bargain hunters plan their bounty based on holiday shipping deadlines. Boxes must be ready by September or early October by the latest if senders want their presents to arrive in time for Christmas. Shipping the boxes—typically $60 to $120, depending on box size and the delivery location—is often the most expensive element.

Packing the box

Packing a worthy balikbayan box is a learned skill. First, you must construct a strong box. Specially branded and measured flat corrugated boxes can be purchased in Asian convenience stores, but it’s up to senders to prepare them for the 1–2 month journey by cargo ship to the Philippines. The cardinal rule: Be generous with the heavy duty tape.

Next, devise the best way to stuff in as many things as possible, without damaging items. Experienced balikbayan box senders recommend putting the heaviest items on the bottom and lightest on top. Lids of shampoo bottles and other liquids should be taped many times over. Loose items can be grouped inside a duffle bag and the spaces can be stuffed with new socks, small garments, pocket books or cylinders of Pringles crisps. New shoes can be stuffed with small canned goods, and breakable items can be wrapped in new towels—bubble wrap is a waste of space. In fact, there’s very little throwaway packing material inside a good balikbayan box. The Filipino’s scrappy ingenuity shines with how they make use of every nook and cranny.

Lastly, to make sure goods don’t spill out, boxes are taped as tightly as possible, with all sides reinforced with heavy duty packing tape many times over, or for the most paranoid, completely girded with shrink wrap. An over-taped box can signal senders’ desperation for the hoard of humble treasures to reach their beloved relatives in perfect condition. Securing the box is an act of love.

Personal goods

OFW’s can send up to three balikbayan boxes worth $1,500 in duty-free goods every year, according to Philippine law. This regulation remains largely unmonitored though, with senders simply handwriting the contents and made-up value of their box on a transmittal form in very broad categories. Philippine customs have a 13-point list of things that should never be sent via the tax-exempt box—from alcoholic beverages, cultural artifacts, commercial goods, guns, to porn. But inevitably, smugglers take advantage of this honor system as a rather easy way to avoid paying taxes on imported goods or to sneak contraband items into the country. A cache of high-powered firearms discovered in August is just an example of the many illegal items that have been smuggled in boxes.

But Filipinos—who send balikbayan boxes year round and with greatest fervor during the Christmas season—were enraged with the proposal that unscrupulous officials should randomly open their lovingly prepared boxes. The idea struck many as an unjust personal violation by the nosy government agents—like someone pilfering through a personal gift or a love letter. Officials backed down and agreed to leave the boxes alone.

Return to sender

The reward for the sender: A heartfelt phone call, Facebook post or even an ”unboxing video” where members of the family celebrate each humble treasure. Box shipping services like the Washington, DC-based Forex Cargo, mail back transmittal receipts to customers with a photo of the family member receiving the box enclosed.

Today, the balikbayan box remains the most unfiltered expression of migrant Filipinos’ generosity and unquenchable longing to be with family, especially during the Christmas holidays. It’s not uncommon to hear Filipinos joke, “Oh, if only I could fit myself inside the box.”