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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

entry arrow1:27 AM | Some Christmas

It takes a great while to notice it is already December in Dumaguete.

There are none of the usual markers of holiday celebrations: save for a gigantic Christmas tree made of parols in Quezon Park, there are no twinkling lights adorning sidewalk lamp posts, and no Mormon Tabernacle Choir cheer echoing through every strip of commercial space. There is only a half-hearted attempt by the City to spruce up the Boulevard in snatches of red and yellow lights; and none at all along Perdices Street, although there are the tiniest bits of red and green tinsels making do for holiday department store Christmas window dressing. Dr. Rico Absin still makes his usual Christmas extravaganza, turning his house into that requisite lights fest. And then there is not much else...

But we move on.

Of course, there are stirrings of plans for Christmas parties down the road -- but mostly they are faint calls, subject to the automatism of tradition. "God, Christmas is no longer the same," a friend of mine recently remarked. "This is Christmas, Recession-Style." He said that with a grin. I could only nod.

"Dear God. Remember when we used to complain that Christmas was becoming commercialized?" I said. "That it wasn't the real thing anymore underneath all those cosmetic snow flakes and exchange gifts and synthetic fir trees?"

Martin nodded. We were both drinking light softdrinks outside Mamia.

I continued: "Now, of course, there's less commercial trimmings. It's the economy. It's post-September 11 depression. It's our everyday shit. Yet suddenly I feel short-changed. Suddenly I feel I really need all those crap to feel Christmassy. I want all those shallow joys back. The keso de bola, the damned Christmas ham, the It's a Wonderful Life movie rerun. You know what I mean?"

Martin nodded. "We often just forget who really invented Christmas in the first place."

"Jesus H. Christ?"

"No, Coca-Cola."

"You're right."

Jolly old, fast Saint Nick. Red cheeks, red suit. A Coca-Cola/Norman Rockwell invention.

Maybe I'm just growing old and cynical.

Say this is so: The real meaning of Christmas comes in peso signs and high electric bills. The real meaning of Christmas is the mound of gifts (packaged beautifully in green and red foil, and expensive-looking bows) right under the plastic Christmas tree, or the way you've drowned the whole house in a sea of lights they compete with the stars. It is just how much your dining table can take overloaded with noche buena, or the fact that you've managed to rent When Harry Met Sally and Home Alone and It's a Wonderful Life from your favorite video store ahead of anyone else. Christmas is carols sung over videoke. Christmas is a Coca-Cola commercial, an open season for watusi, and noisy children banging a strange array of percussion instruments (somebody's kettle, for example) while doing a murdered rendition of "Jingle Bells."

The religiously-inclined screams: "Jesus! He is the reason for the season!" Thank you very much. Point very well taken. But without a hint of a Scroogey gripe, Christmas just isn't Christmas without a bit of the commercial in it. Those who bemoan the selling of a season to a plethora of food and expensive toys and holiday shopping sprees deny the basic human instinct to party. True, we can have meaningful celebrations without the mistletoe or snow or mountains of exchange gifts waiting for the light of Christmas dawn, but they sure do help make the season bright, no harm in that.

The one time, as a kid, I had a Christmas without the usual shiny tinsels, we ate a spare serving of chicken salad my brother Rey prepared and went to bed at 10 p.m. Sure, it was very nice and warm, and the family hugged and wished merriness to each other and prayed in a circle -- but we did pray that perhaps next year, Christmas would be a bit better, maybe with a ham or two. That night, I remember taking after Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis: I sat on our window sill and sang, in my 9 year-old voice, a wispy version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." It is a lovely song, but a sad song really, the sweet melody just mellows down the hopeful, expectant want expressed in the lyrics: "...Through the years, we all will be together / if the fates allow / Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow / So have yourself a merry little Christmas now." The operative word is "little." And with a dramatic pause, I wished upon my midnight star. Like Jimminy Cricket. But that's another story.

The season for the everyday Filipino is one extended reason to fiesta, right from the start of a Ber month, to Three Kings Day somewhere in the heart of January. We love Christmas because it gives us the perfect excuse to hide our everyday troubles under a makeshift Christmas tree. When I was twelve, we had a long-suffering labandera with a louse for a husband and a drunk for a mother-in-law. Her sadness were in her eyes, although her motor-mouth regaled with tall tales and funny gossip. Every night, she went home and took her beating, as if a hard day's labor wrestling with wet bedsheets and jeans weren't enough.

Yet, around Christmas, she'd drag us to her five-meter squared barong-barong and whip up for us something she called "hamburger cake." It was always burnt and tasted a bit funny, but it was her own version of Christmas fiesta, thank you very much.

The three greatest memories I have of Christmas are when my brother Rocky, then a salesman from a big pharmaceutical company, came home from Cebu with these plastic bags of new (and golden) 25 centavo coins, and proceeded to throw handful upon handful of coins to the air at the stroke of Christmas midnight. There was a happy melee, all of us on our knees scooping and searching for little yellow coins in every nook and cranny of the house.

I managed to gather about twenty pesos worth of coins (a small fortune in those times), and the day after that, we all went to Ever Theater to watch A Chorus Line. The movies were cheaper then, only seven pesos for a balcony seat.

Another memory is of 1994 when my brother Edwin bought me a CD-ROM drive I lusted after in front of DGTech's display window. The present was unexpected, and expensive, which made it extra-special. I mean, who'd want to spend P9,000 on somebody else unless you really like that person? My brother did. It's quad-speed is obsolete now, but then it was something else.

A third memory was in Japan in 1997. The northern hemisphere snow made sure I had my first dose of a White Christmas. The ear-mufflers nipped at my frozen ears, and I was shivering under five layers of clothing. But there it was in front of me, a concert of silver bells inside a candle-lit church decorated in holly and poinsettia. Later that night, a Finnish friend took me to party of six where we had hot apple cider and Nordic cookies in front of a fireplace. It was so Norman Rockwellian, I expected Santa Claus to drop anytime.

It is true, in many ways, that it is easy to overlook Christmas under the din of silver-dust glitz and the commercial panic of having lessening and lessening number of shopping days before The Day. Yet it is also true that when we all "grow up," the child in us withers, and our perception of Christmas wastes away in objectified rationality, compounded with adult worries that the holidays, in the first place, seek to do away.

We forget the simple joys of giving and receiving. We forget the thrill we use to get every time the radio plays a Vic Damone or a Mary Carpenter holiday tune. We forget the simple awe in watching lit up houses and Christmas trees. Maybe, we simply grow old, and we compensate wrongly by dismissing everything as commercial and trite. Presented with Christmas lights, we think of NORECO bills instead. Presented with a Bais City Christmas festival, we gasp about the budget instead.

One Christmas Sunday some years ago, Edwin and I traversed the city streets in his new car on the way to the Silliman Church for its Christmas cantata, and later, suddenly—in the middle of the SU Band playing "Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit," it hit me hard: Christmas was in the city, despite the absence of obvious signs. But I was just too busy trying to make myself busy to really take notice of the change in the landscape.

I was not blind; I had once looked -- many, many days ago -- at the lights slowly draping Dumaguete. I had looked from inside a rushing tricycle, or from behind the windows of Scooby's Silliman Branch commiserating over work. But that Sunday night, music filled the caverns of SU Church, and I felt the first stirrings despite the sea of empty faces from the congregation. Christmas is personal. It starts from within. And dammit, you celebrate it no matter what.

On the way home, the car radio blared out Jose Mari Chan in his Christmas best, warbling about girls and boys selling lanterns in the streets. Despite everything, there it was: a soft feeling of home.


[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich