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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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Friday, December 19, 2008

entry arrow10:48 PM | Adventures in a Grown-up Christmas

There are several personal traditions—some of them merely the sweetest of Christmas superstitions—that I need to keep, to make sure my yuletide cheer comes to some kind of reality. In the final analysis, they really mean nothing; but I am only a man, and we are given to expect works of wonder in the intricate divining of possibilities.

I don’t know if it’s the same with you, but for many people I know, it has become increasingly hard to breathe in the holiday spirit in our “grown-up” state of things. “Grown-up” means a weary jadedness that calls for seeing reduced luster even in the most brilliant of Christmas lights. “Grown-up” means incapability to enjoy the simplest signifiers of the season, because the very call for “peace on Earth and goodwill to men” is tempered by the news we see on CNN and the rapacious venality of everyday people we encounter in the string of our lives. “Grown-up” means the surrender of the childlike.

And then, of course, there are the other adults among us who do not help matters by being very generous in sharing a common plaint of (1) the utter “commerciality” of the season, (2) the endless foot traffic through the asphyxiating malls, and (3) the extensive shopping lists they bear, lists whose soundtrack is the shrill shrinking of credit cards maxing out.

“I so can’t wait for December to be over,” all my friends say.

Where is the “merry” in Merry Christmas? And the “happy” in the Happy New Year? (Eventually, some evangelical friend would also chime in, and complain about missing the “Christ” in Christmas.)

One answer: they’re there in the recesses of our memories. They exist as earnest flashbacks to faraway childhoods when the only care we had of the world was the mystery inside assorted boxes wrapped with glinting red-and-green paper and ribbons.

“What did ninong give me?”

“I shook the box, and it sounds like a new toy car.”

“How many gifts do we have under our tree?”

And so on and so forth—our childish wonder fleeting from the gleeful noise of family reunions to the splendid avalanche of gifts to Christmas lights to the heartening display of noche buena (complete with queso de bola and ham) to the sound of carolers murdering the lyrics of “Winter Wonderland” (while ungraciously handing out the inconspicuous white envelope to Dad, a call for instant holiday hold-up charity). How we delighted in the little Christmassy things. But Christmas is for children, so we are constantly told when we grow up. And we believe that now as we assess our conflicting embrace of the annual festivities—how we used to be so delighted, and how tiresome everything is so suddenly. Then we realize, bit by bit, that we had crossed an invisible line the moment we came of age and had come to accept a denial of Santa Claus without too much of a horror: and suddenly, Christmas becomes reduced to a testy quest to recapture those long-gone moments when we were young and were easily impressed by the tall (and plastic) Christmas tree standing by the window, a green hulk of a thing pregnant with decorations and lights.

Admit it, we do; we want to relive those old joys despite it all.

Much of our holiday anxiety and assorted sadnesses (e.g., suicides, so the popular statistics say, spike in the depths of December) spring from the fact that for most of us, the quest to recapture what we remember fondly of Christmas has become increasingly futile. Childhood and old Christmases suddenly seem like a foreign country from where we are forever denied entry.

Thus, it has become so easy to become unmerry under the mistletoe.

But still most of us trudge on, true to the quest, never mind how quixotic the goal may be. And we all have our own secret formulas to recapture a little bit of the past. For one strange friend, it is the smell of rotting apple in a bowl. (“My mother used to bake apple pie for noche Buena,” he tells me.) For another friend, it is a 24-hour looping marathon of Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story. For another friend, it is a reading of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (to which I once told him, “How very American of you”). Perhaps for others, it would be the sight of the Rockettes in a chorus line in Radio City Music Hall. Or the annual staging of The Nutcracker.

My own formula rests on several ingredients, all of them unpredictable.

The nippy weather is one of them—gray skies in particular, days that resemble my remembered winters, complete, of course, with a slight chill in the air that requires a change in our constant tropical wardrobe—the cotton white tee, the pair of city shorts, and the eternal sandals banished in exchange for a thick, long-sleeved collar shirt, tight jeans, and stylish walking boots. Because I feel it just cannot be Christmassy when the air is thick with humidity. The sun has to be exiled, at least for a while, into the winter solstice. Increasingly though, the changing weather patterns worldwide have wrecked havoc on our expectations of the climate. Our recent Decembers have become more summery, the sun relentless as if it was the middle of May. The last cold December I remember was years back, when I was still a college student, and the soft rain falling on Dumaguete required the wearing of sweaters. (Sweaters! I haven’t worn a sweater for years now. I don’t even own one anymore.) But lately, it has been a little chilly in Dumaguete—so thank God for that.

Then there’s music. The soundtrack of the season. Christmas music. And none of the dreck that characterizes the affected pop warble of Christina Aguilera or Mariah Carey. The traditional ones are the only soundtrack to our Christmas cheer that will suffice. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, for example. Better yet: the complete recording of The Carpenters regaling us with holiday music remembered most as radio staples when most of us were growing up. There are two albums from the duo: the eternal Christmas Portrait, and the ethereal An Old-Fashioned Christmas. There is just no other musical welcome than hearing Karen Carpenter sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” This song, as well as Christmas classics from the likes of Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, were staples of the air waves when I was growing up. And hearing them again, even when I’m all grown-up, makes it easy to travel back in time.

Then there are the holiday effects, too: but I ache for the old abandon that used to characterize Dumagueteños when it came to holiday decorating. There was a time when every establishment competed with each other in coming up with the most imaginative displays and with the most elaborate of light shows. But no longer. The economy had something to do with this restraint. And it has since gone from bad to worse since the weary days of the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s. In 1998, I had called the public decorations as testament of “Recession Cheer,” but I had hoped that there would be an immediate future where the lights would be back to delight us all over again. It has been 10 years since. And the lights are not back. There are, of course, this year, the beautiful white-lit parols draping the acacias off the Rizal Boulevard (as well as the ugly yellow-lit skirt that makes for a Christmas “tree” in Quezon Park)—but somehow, they do not seem enough.

And last would be the movies. These are moving signifiers that can easily affect a semblance of Christmas cheer, perhaps because films are good vehicles for fantasy. In the dark, the glittering Christmas drama flickering on the silver screen become ours, the characters in the film our stand-ins. For me, there are six films that are my constant standbys: Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally…, Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and Christopher Columbus’ Home Alone. I watch any of them on Christmas morning, and a kind of contentment settles over me. My grown-up self tells me what I feel is only an illusion—but who cares? At least for two hours, I am permitted to indulge in Christmas fantasy. And for the most part, that is enough.

Mine is a simple formula that sometimes works, and sometimes does not work. But in the end, I think what matters most comes about through a crucial decision: that of deciding to be happy for the holidays, no matter what. A wise friend once told me that happiness is often a decisive act, a matter of ordering oneself to reorient one’s perspectives and imbibe only in a positiveness that comes with smiles. The first time I heard this philosophy, I thought it was kooky: I did not believe my friend until I tried it for myself this year. I decided to be happy, no matter what. I made myself smile. I made myself care. (And I made myself promise that I will never go out to the commercial battlefields that are the shopping centers to buy gifts.)

This year, for the first time in truly a long, long while, I’m happy for the holidays.

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