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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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Sunday, March 05, 2023

entry arrow9:00 AM | The Eternal Calendar

[Expanded from the original essay]

Growing up, I always found this particular commercial calendar unavoidable. It was [and still is] ubiquitous in many Filipino homes - and you probably know what I'm talking about: this oversized calendar printed on cheap-seeming white paper, with the dates in grids and emblazoned in large impactful [and often blue] typefaces, the Sundays always in red, the phases of the moon marked out on the leftover grids, and the holidays sometimes printed on the dates themselves or relegated to a special list somewhere at the bottom of the sheet. Upon closer inspection, you will find daily information of the tide timetables - marking out the very specific times for high tide and low tide. In some versions, you will find reminders when to pay your taxes. In other versions, you will find various saint names attached to days that celebrate their feasts. A typical calendar set comes with twelve sheets, one devoted to each month of the year, and all fastened together at the top with a long metallic bar that serves as a clip - and at the end of each month my mother used to relish tearing off each sheet neatly along that metal bar, marking her time in a dramatic manner, each tear an instance of beginning anew.

I've always found this particular calendar ugly - an aversion that was certainly emblematic of the terrible snob that was my younger self, but for completely anti-capitalist reasons [or so I tell myself]: this calendar was always so blatantly commercial, with a store's name and information plastered prominently on the upper half of every page. "Lee Super Plaza!" it screamed. "Cang's!" "Yan Yan Commercial!" "FortuneMart!" The commercialism felt like an assault, and I must have begrudged this calendar for that quality.

But there was also another reason. My brother Edwin, who lives in Switzerland, also used to send us beautiful wall calendars with picturesque Swiss views, and with the pages bound by some nicely designed springs. The dates were smaller and the holidays marked were foreign - but the pictures were lovely. Snowcapped alps! Green valleys filled with flowers! Crystal-clear lakes! What's not to love? I preferred these compared to that common gargantuan calendar that always seemed to be too big for any wall it was set on. [In my house, it usually ended up on a kitchen wall.] It also didn't help that I seem to have a hardwired trait of ignoring the very existence [and essence] of calendars, and even until now I have a strange difficulty determining dates. [Case in point: I used to design posters for the Silliman University Culture and Arts Council, and I remember tasking one fellow member to always check the dates I put in on the posters because I always got them wrong. I have "calendar blindness." So, yes: calendars and me don't mesh well together.]

But that's just me. [And apparently some other people — fictionist Raissa Rivera Falgui and poet Mila D. Aguilar — agree with me about this calendar's "ugliness"!]

Still, so many people have great affection for this calendar style, which has been in circulation for decades. I discovered this when I witnessed my boyfriend and his mother become frantic one December because all their suki stores had already ran out of inventory of these calendars, which were usually given away to customers. Apparently, this kind of calendar disappears pretty fast every year. Their earnest search for this type of calendar puzzled me, which led me to realize that so many other people actually love this calendar. I was shocked, and amused.

But I also totally understood. When it comes down to it, this calendar is frills-free, and reminds you of each date, in your face, with their humongous type. And then all the other information stored in it basically makes this type of calendar an almanac for regular Filipinos. Dumaguete-based Pakistani farmer/poet Mohammed Malik tells me: "This year is my first time using it and I find it a very compelling design. [It's] extremely functional." It's the functionality of the design that its fans point out the most, conveniently summed by writer Janet Villa: "My Mama loved those calendars, Ian. Kay dako ug letra, red ang Sunday, and then naay phases of the moon [Mama was superstitious] plus naay high and low tides [important if living near the beach]."

The size of the dates is important for many people. "You can see everything from afar," theater actor and singer Hope Tinambacan says, which novelist Jose Y. Dalisay Jr. echoes: "I've always liked this because it does one thing and does it well: the big numbers are great for seniors like me."

Businesswoman and memoirist Erlinda Panlilio tells me: "I love, and look for, calendars like this because it contains phases of the moon, which guide superstitious people like me on when to embark on a new venture or sign a contract - that is, when the moon is waxing and not waning, and preferably when it's full!"

Poet and essayist Marra PL Lanot loves the functionality, which govern the minutiae of her life: "The phases of the moon guide me as to when to cut my nails, when to cut my hair, and when to plant flowers, trees, etc. The practice was religiously followed by our ancestors who tilled the fields and who didn't have calendars then."

Theater actor and teacher Ludendorffo Decenteceo tells me: "My parents loved this calendar because the numbers were so to-your-face - no 'ifs' or 'buts.' You just cancel the days that have gone by, and you also write notes on it, especially in an era before Post-it notes. I love the moon phases and the tide information - a guide to when to start a project. It's very practical." Almost everyone tells me that the inclusion of tidal information is very important to them, or to their family members. Sanda Fuentes, whose family owns Lab-as Restaurant, says: "My mom uses this too for the tidal info which is very essential to the fishpond operations," which poet Grace Monte de Ramos affirms: "I love this calendar because it has the tides, ebb and high and the time, in addition to the phases of the moon." Eldawn Catalan tells me: "I love this calendar so much! [It] reminds me of my grandmother who would track the tides and do something different with her plants [which later on my mom adopted]."

Lawyer Golda Benjamin says the tidal information was important to families who love going to the beach: "I don't like going to the beach when it is low tide kay layhan man ko maglangoy-langoy. But now that we have a toddler, we go pag-low tide because it is safer for her. And we pick beaches with long coastline, like along Praia, so our daughter can run around pag-kapoy na sya mag-swim."

But there's more! Writer Andrea Teran points out one specific utility: "My dad would write utang on it, too!" The calendar was huge enough for families to tack on reminders on it, which another writer Eunice Barbara Novio affirms: "Sa likod nyan ay listahan ng utang at ng mga umutang. Ganyan ang kalendaryo na gusto ni Nanay. Malalaki ang numero."

There's also the utility of being able to keep track with assorted things. Nest Zamora Lucas tells me: "Yung lola ko minarkahan ang mga araw kung kailan nagsimulang lumandi, at nakasta, o nabulog ng barako ang mga inahing baboy at kung kailan sila expected na magbuntis at manganak."

My high school classmate Jeremiah Tagle also tells me: "Ang moon phase will also remind you when to expect higher price of fresh fish at the wet market. Mahal inig bulanon!" [This also makes the calendar useful to local fishermen.]

And Mark Anthony Salvador tells me: "Isinusulat ni Mama sa ganitong kalendaryo namin ang petsa kung kailan binili ang LPG. Pag naubos ang laman ng tangke, sasabihin niya kung tumagal man lang ba ito nang isang buwan."

Then there's the added factor that it's practically cheap, usually given away for free by suki nga mga tindahan, and even larger retail stores like SM. Sanda Fuentes says: "I still recall waiting on Nijosa to hand us their calendars when we did our December shopping," and writer Susan Lara says: "We used to get ours from our bakery." Janet Villa further reveals: "Unya libre pa jud gikan sa hardware nga suki ni Mama, or gikan sa Aboitiz. And it's on cheap paper so Mama didn't cringe at writing on it or crossing out dates."

To which playwright Liza C. Magtoto adds: "And it makes for a beautiful gift wrapper."

This calendar is such a fixture in Filipino households that many who have migrated have taken this to be a token for that longing for home. Poet and comics artist James Neish, who now lives in Canada, affirms this: "Reminds me of home for sure." My former student Lurlyn Mae Carmona, who now lives in the U.S., had a visceral reaction when she saw my post about this calendar on Facebook: "As an immigrant who has not been home in a long time, this made me extremely nostalgic and homesick. This reminds me of Saturday afternoons sitting around the kitchen table - my lola writing down reminders for the next week on this calendar's pages as I sat eating the delicious lunch she had prepared that day. Some things are purely no frills, but hold so much meaning unrealized until it's brought back from old memory."

This sense of nostalgia has pushed another friend to be creative about it: "A couple of years ago," Dean Visitacion tells me, "I printed my own calendar na ingon ani format. Pawala kamingaw ug tambal sa homesickness."

Who started or designed this calendar? I wanted to know. What I could cull from what research I did seemed to point to an American origin - with a significant cultural transfer to China, which then spread to many countries in Southeast Asia.

The commercial calendar was essentially an Anglo-American invention, and began as an advertising gimmick introduced by the capitalist West - principally companies that sold, manufactured, and processed tobacco, medicine, cosmetics, textile, and oil. According to Francesco Bertelli, in his essay on the history of calendar design: "The late 18th century and across the second industrial revolution advertising calendars will become a popular vehicle to spread the brand identity in people households. Hotels, gas stations, banks, small or big brands all will be offering complimentary calendars as a mean to boost their presence." As early as the 1900s, stores and commercial establishments in America began producing a calendar of this particular design - with monthly sheets, dates in grids, large prints, and added details such as historic events and moon phases - for the purpose of gifting to regular patrons.

The practice of commercial calendars spread to China in the 1920s, although these Chinese calendars were more inclined towards the artistic, with pictures of local scenes and beautiful women being the predominant design element. According to Leo Oufan Lee in his essay "The Cultural Construction of Modernity in Urban Shanghai: Some Preliminary Explorations" [from Becoming Chinese: Passages to Modernity and Beyond, edited by Wen-hsin Yeh]: "As early as the second decade of the twentieth century, the American Tobacco Company (Yingmei yancao gongsi) had introduced offset lithographic printing, formed its own advertising department, and set up an art school for the sole purpose of training commercial artists. But its domination was soon challenged by native Chinese entrepreneurs, in particular Huang Chujiu, the owner of the Great Eastern Dispensary and the Great World Amusement Building, who spotted the artistic talent of a Hangzhou painter, Zheng Man-tuo, and promoted him. Thus calendar posters painted by Zheng and his disciples became most sought-after items, thereby establishing a new tradition of commercial art that combined traditional Chinese painting techniques with modern design (sometimes framed with art deco patterns) and utility. In the 1920s and early 1930s, the calendar poster reached a peak of popularity."

The more austere [and popular] version of the commercial calendar also popped up in China, and found its way to many countries in Asia, including Thailand and the Philippines, where they were given as giveaways by mostly Chinese-owned businesses in those countries. And if you are sharp enough, you can get glimpses of these calendars in decades-old artifacts of local popular culture. According to film archivist Teddy O. Co: "I saw this kind of calendar in the 1953 film Dyesebel."

This calendar soon became customized, with the design and textual elements [tidal information, phases of the moon, tax information, and holidays, etc.] becoming proprietary information by a cabal of printers who come up each year with premade calendars where the customization is limited to the top ad space. The ad space depends on the size of the calendar, with the client companies being given the option of having the same top image in every sheet or a different image in every sheet.

According to Cindie Cheng, the daughter of a former printing press owner: "There are only three printing presses [in the Philippines] that print only that - as in, just that, the whole year round. Other printing presses like ours then buy these pages around June for us to print our customers' info, after which, we gather, then bind, then pack them into individual rolls."

Of course, this is not the only well-known commercial calendar in the Philippines. Other companies have evolved with specific calendars whose design elements are immediately recognizable as belonging to that corporation. For example, Fortune Tobacco became well-known for calendars using religious iconography. Ginebra San Miguel became known for calendars featuring their "calendar girls." White Castle Whiskey was also known for their calendar girls - but specifically women astride white horses.

But the financial crunch of the current times has also impacted this calendar's ubiquity - which might be why calendars as store giveaways are becoming a rarity. Visual artist and cultural worker Oliver Phil Quingco II tells me: "Most businesses, especially banks, give this away every Christmas and New Year to their clientele and account holders. Alas, it seems that with financial challenges these days, this has been replaced by smaller desk calendars. Now we have miniature pocket calendars. Only a handful of Chinese-owned businesses still retain this gift-giving tradition of wall calendars."

That increasing rarity has made people already nostalgic for this kind of calendar. My friend Jacki Demuynck notes: "To my future manito/manita, mao ni i-gift nako please, ha." Playwright Alvin I. Dacanay confesses: "I value this calendar type's usefulness. Last year, I went out of my way to go to Sta. Cruz, Manila to buy a few along the sidewalk on Avenida Rizal." My friend Wilma Famoso also notes: "Sometimes we take for granted the 'usual' in our lives, like this calendar, until they gradually fade. Sana whoever designs and prints this calendar will continue to do so."

The poet Joey Baquiran gives me the best ending: "Walang ibang calendar for me, except [this] version. Walang kuwenta yung iba."

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