[Viewpoint] An energetic Christmas in the tropics

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[Viewpoint] An energetic Christmas in the tropics

In the Philippines, Christmas is not just the season of joy. It’s also the season of hope.

The autumn term is winding down and I am finding it hard to finish what a professor has to finish while dreaming of going home for Christmas. While I run the risk of political incorrectness mentioning Christmas, that risk is in the United States, not here in Korea, and certainly it would be unimaginable in my country, the Philippines.

It is said that Christmas is celebrated longest in the Philippines. Carols can be heard on the radio as early as the start of the “-ber” months. December is Christmas as far as any Filipino is concerned. And it lasts all the way to the 6th of January, which was still the Feast of Three Kings in days of my youth. Today, this feast is moved to the first Sunday of the solar New Year. Indeed, our celebration of this event lasts longer than the Twelve Days of Christmas.

While this holiday is celebrated here in Korea as well, its celebration is not as vibrant as it is back home, despite the Christmas displays in the department stores and the advent wreaths in the cathedrals and churches. In contrast, it is omnipresent in my country.

The streets are adorned with decorations. The Commission on Audit probably dares not question the discretion of a local government executive in putting up decorations on the light posts and in the government offices.

Homes put up their lights and parol (a version of the Bethlehem star). The Christmas tree is a fixture in living rooms. And the belen (the Nativity scene) will probably be put up on concrete awnings atop the entrances to many privately-owned business buildings.

The traditional practices are everywhere as well. There is the nine-day Misa de Gallo (dawn mass) which culminates in the Simbang Gabi (night mass) on Christmas Eve, the caroling at the gates of neighbors or at the office parties or more recently out car windows while one stops for a red light, the noche buena (literally “good night,” referring to the feast also on Christmas Eve night), and of course the gift giving.

The influences are mixed. Definitely, there is Spanish, as can be gleaned from most of the terms above. There, too, is Western culture, for how can one imagine a winter wonderland theme complete with Santa Claus garb in a tropical country?

There is a sprinkling of Chinese culture, for they are the business class and what comes to mind is the red envelope passed on to the employees by the bosses during corporate Christmas parties.

What comes to this social scientist’s mind, though, are musings on how this punctuated and ardently awaited cultural event of the year can adequately describe or define, if you may, the Filipino people and country in general.

Culture is a source of structure. And structure governs how we must act toward one another in expected ways and thereby organize our lives collectively. Analyzing Christmas in the Philippines is an informed way of understanding my people. Surely, the same can be done for Chuseok in Korea and Thanksgiving in the West.

Right away, there is the Filipino hospitality. We welcome you, our guest, readily with a genuine smile and quickly establish some relation with you (like the friend of the brother of a nephew of the former boss of an uncle’s driver) though we will not be exasperated if there is nothing at all.

You can sup and drink with us during the noche buena or anytime during the year. When you go home, you must take with you some aluminum-foil-wrapped food that we did not consume together. We want to be assured that you have something to eat at breakfast.

Then there is the gift giving. We must give gifts to everyone. The shopping frenzy at the malls spikes up our economy.

I still have yet to come across another country that has obligated companies by law to give a 13th month bonus pay to all employees at the end of the year. This is certainly a bane to the pocketbook, but the gift ensures that our relationship will not be forgotten in the long run, and we hope the recipient will not forget either.

The week between Christmas and the New Year is not a time to do business in the Philippines. Everything grinds to a virtual halt.

That this is a year-end event is a signal to all that it is time to rest from the weariness of the past year and to reenergize for the year ahead. Balance of work life, I sometimes think, was invented in the Philippines.

Most significantly ingrained in the Filipino mind is Christmas as a time of hope. Here lies the reason behind the resiliency of the Filipino, as can be attested to by employers of the multitude of Filipino industrial workers here in Korea.

Hit us with all you’ve got, because we will bounce back. The tragedies that have befallen us in 2009 will assuredly be put behind us sooner rather than later simply because that is the way we are.

Alas, while all these can be celebrated, they can be abused as well, like yin and yang. But it’s Christmas, so we accentuate the positive for now, knowing full well that we will deal with the dark shadows in due time.

Sigh. Then breathe in the air of hope. And smile again. That is the Filipino way.

Merry Christmas, everyone! Chukseungtan! Maligayang Pasko!

*The writer is a professor at Kyunghee University and member of PhilRPG.

by Manuel Dioquino
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