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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 18, 2009

entry arrow5:46 PM | The Search for Christmas in a Small City

Because Christmas is a season whose very heart lies in the fond memories of all brilliant and shining Christmasses in our childhoods, and because our adult lives are simply a more chaotic attempt to recapture much of that long-lost innocence in gifts and Santa Claus and delicious noche buenas, the search for the Christmas Spirit is something we tango with every single year—sometimes with delirious success, and sometimes with unmet expectations that feel like existential train wrecks.

By Baby Jesus in his lampin, it is one evasive spirit, indeed.

Have you heard that pedestrian observation about Christmas being a holiday tailor-made for children? That’s mostly right. Because it simply becomes more and more difficult to celebrate Christmas as one gets older and older. Perhaps this is because we have suffered through too much pain already, and have surfed through too many disappointments—enough to cloud our capacity for pure joy. Our grownup jadedness sadly soon becomes us, and when we are finally asked to “be of good cheer” one more time, always at the end of a year we are always so eager to put behind us (and 2009 seems to be one of those grotesque years), we do so out of routine, out of a kind of cultural brainwashing. And if you are married and with children, you do so finally because you don’t want your young family to be deprived of the holiday magic you, too, once felt when you still believed in Santa Claus.

Sometimes, though, we get a break—and Christmas becomes happy once more by some strange twist of fate. Often, though, we expect too much out of it that nothing comes of it except another pained resolve not to get too much into the season anymore. “It’s too commercial!” we begin to grumble like this. Or: “There is no longer any Christ in Christmas!”

Or, as Scrooge properly put it: “Bah, humbug.”

Let me put this bluntly: there is a reason why such a naturally “happy” season—or so we are led to believe—also packs in the numbers for the highest suicide rates, especially in countries like the United States. That expectation for happiness has been hardwired into all of us. Loneliness becomes even lonelier in Christmas time. That’s just the way it is. As we spy other people go about their Christmas lives in the company of partying friends and boisterous family, we cannot help but judge ourselves in the light of that impossible picture of a seemingly lived life. Why don’t I have that life? some of us might ask themselves. Why am I so alone?

Don’t think you cannot be touched by such holiday melancholy. It can come. I truly felt the terror of that kind of loneliness once, when I lived in Japan and spent the Christmas break in snowy Hokkaido, with a Japanese family who spoke no English, in a country that was not Christian. The Japanese only celebrate Christmas in the most superficial ways—and when you are out of Tokyo and living in the minor cities outside that megalopolis, Christmas Day becomes just another ordinary day. And so, on the 24th of December of that year of endless travel in my life, when I was 22, I went to bed early. Before sleeping, I spied out the window of my bedroom and saw Christmas Eve descending on the town of Kitami with the heavy snow, everything else dark as coal, and cold. The tears flowed through me that year—and I suddenly had painful visions of family back in the Philippines, gathering around the table for noche buena, enjoying Christmas songs and lechon and chicken salad and fireworks while I cried myself to lonely sleep.

That was my saddest Christmas.

No other season pushes you so hard to treasure what’s close, what’s intimate.

“Have you fount it yet?” we ask each of ourselves silly the moment the ber months start coming in.

“Found what?”

“The Christmas spirit.”

This is the answer (or challenge?) we get from everyone else, and it is something so immediately silly and serious at the same time that for most of us, it is enough to send us panicking—some only subtly so, or at least they pretend not care too much—to try to find the personal holiday bug that will keep us cheerful through the rest of the season.

The bug bite, of course, is a kind of emotional merry zone where we’re readily hypnotized to sing carols at the drop of the hat and buy gifts and what-not despite the monster crowds every which way we go. In the end, it is a lightness of spirit, a communion with the zeal that drives brightly colored Christmas trees and Simbang Gabi and another viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life. It is the hint of the smile we feel breaking on our faces when we see the white-lit parols strewn with such beautiful randomness all over the Rizal Boulevard acacias. It is the ease of feeling for friends, the way we are suddenly so generous with our embraces and our beso-besos. It is the sigh from deep within when we hear “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” over the radio. It is the nippiness in the air that drives us completely nuts thinking of wintry fantasies of snow. It is the reunions with family. It is the queso bola. The fruit cake. The cheap red wine.

And so I began looking for it in the usual avenues that have proven successful in past years: (1) a barrage of holiday songs from The Carpenters’ two Christmas albums with its gorgeous mix of sentimental melancholy and hopeful longing, (2) a faithful re-screening of Chris Columbus’s Home Alone with its escapist childish frenzy set to tinsels and carols, and (3) a meticulous Sunday morning spent decorating the Christmas tree in my mother’s house.

Yet nothing worked.

The holiday season, for me, simply flowed in with the weeks and meshed with the ordinariness of the days of the rest of the year. I worked so hard on it, too, I got a headache. Was I becoming too old for Christmas finally? Where was that old giddiness? Where was that pure, unexplained joy from the exercise of wrapping boxed gifts in red and gold paper and ribbons?

Dumaguete as it is now certainly does not make it easy anymore. Over the years, there seems to be a declining tendency to put out the merry best among many establishments around town, the way they used to do in the 1990s. In that decade, there was a virtual contest among many in sprucing up homes and buildings in bright lights and what-not, each one with a holiday theme that sought to outrival others. That decorating spirit is largely gone—and perhaps the bad economy has gobbled that tendency, and perhaps it is also not to wise to be so profligate with energy wastage in the Age of Global Warming and the Worldwide Recession. I get that. But I also do miss the easy way the abundance of Christmas lights around town pushed the I-am-ready-for-Christmas button in all of us back in the days. In the end, Dumagueteños are now left to their own devices—and for the most part, Dumagueteños merely mope and complain.

I tried hard. I tried Simbang Gabi. I tried manito/manita. I tried smiling a lot and greeting everybody Merry Christmas. Nothing.

And that was when I just decided to let go. Yesterday, I hitched a ride with a friend to the mall, with only one mission: to just let go, to act like a kid. Like a kid, I tell you. And so I did. I followed my feet, I played games, I ate ice cream in a cone, I devoured a brownie, I bought books, I had dinner of Japanese food, I watched James Cameron’s Avatar… I made myself get lost in the hours, and just … be. I thoroughly forgot the melancholy attempts at Christmas cheer, which paradoxically led to the very cheerfulness I was looking for. I was finally going home when I heard the song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” wafting in from a store—and I felt it: that quiet, beautiful tugging at the heart that I recognized as a kind of simple joy. Something marked by candy and mistletoe.

Christmas is indeed for children. I am in my thirties—but what the heck, I was 12 that day.

And I was—am—happy.

And here’s a Merry Christmas to one and all.

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