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All that Glitters is Hope (AND bumper-to-bumper taillights!)

Manic in Manila

To say that the Christmas season has set in on these Philippine Islands would be to state the very, very obvious – and, it would be to state the obvious more than a tad too late! Christmas fever, in fact, sets in as soon as the calendar rolls into the “-ber months’ – that’s just how Filipinos do it, and to rage against that machine would be an exercise in holiday humbuggery and flailing futility.

Come September (sometimes, even as early as late August), carols fill the air and the airwaves – playing on-loop (ad nauseam), in fact, at malls across the country, blaring from jeepneys tuned-in to their favorite radio stations, and from your favorite sari-sari store at the street corner. Lights, Yule trees, nativity scenes, and all things Christmas creep up on us bit by bit, totally unmindful of Halloween (which, sadly, seems to lie in a Noel-shaped shadow).

When festivity and faith collide

Collectively, Filipinos are a very festive people. There are just about as many fiestas and local celebrations as there are islands, it would seem. There’s a fiesta for every patron saint, national hero, every holiday (religious or otherwise), a gamut of foundation days, feast days, birthdays, even death anniversaries – you name it, and we will deck the streets with banderitas, flags, and banners to celebrate and/or commemorate it. Then, we will whip out a trusty karaoke machine, blast the tunes and sing ‘til the wee hours, with booze and barbeque to boot.

Add to that culturally ingrained penchant for parties, a heaping helping of devout Catholicism, and you can just imagine the scale by which Christmas is feted in these parts. This is the season of the birth that matters most to all who call themselves Christian; as such, a party of epic proportions is always in order. And yes, there will be food and fanfare, music and merriment, games and gifts for everyone and their nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts, family twice removed.

Evolution of the Glitterati

Even just a cursory glance will clue you in on the fact that Christmas has evolved from its humble beginnings into a spectacle of sorts, truth be told. From the lowly manger scene that was the first Christmas, if you hold to the religious roots of the season, to today’s glitz and glitter, much has changed – so much so that some might say the season is now off-kilter.

Commercialism has long crept in, and, with it, all the pitfalls of mindless, bottomless consumerism. What was once-heartfelt gift giving has become a touch more obligatory, bordering on burdensome. People spend, in excess, and enter the New Year harassed and in debt. It’s almost enough to make you want to crawl under the covers and sleep in until it’s all over – and, between the traffic-laden streets and crush of holiday-shopping humanity, who can blame you for wanting to?

The Glitterati has come, and has choked out the joy, for many.

A herald of hope

But, beyond the frenzied fanfare and the outwardly ostentatious obligations, Christmas, at its core, remains the herald of hope it was always meant to be.

I remember a trip I took to Saipan last year, in early September. My daughter and I were having breakfast at the hotel restaurant, and I noticed instrumental Christmas carols playing softly from the piped-in speakers. I knew, without a doubt that there were Filipinos on the service team – and I wasn’t wrong.

“Ma’am, it reminds us of home, and it makes our job easier,” the headwaiter told me, in the vernacular, when I commented on the music.

A post-Super Typhoon Haiyan story likewise comes to mind. In the aftermath of the natural disaster, amidst a scene of rampant looting in the city of Tacloban, whose low-lying areas were among the hardest-hit, a lady scoured through the sundries section of a small supplies store. Everyone else fought over canned food items and such, but this lady clung on to a miniature, water-damaged Christmas tree she found in a corner of the shop.

“Yes, my family needs food, but I am not going to fight over it. Because more than that, my family needs hope,” she recounted to a reporter, speaking in the dialect interspersed with sobbing.

More recently, entering November, in the lobby of the building in which I work, I admired the Christmas tree, in passing, “Wow, Paskong-pasko na dito (it’s certainly Christmas-y in here!),” I said, to which the lady guard replied, rather longingly, “Ma’am, sana nga Pasko araw-araw (I wish it were Christmas every day).”

I could sense the weariness in her voice – but I could also sense the longing for better days.

A merry, transformative Christmas

Indeed, life is hard; even more so in the Philippines. And that is yet another statement of the obvious. People need hope to make it through – and therein lies the true glitter of Christmas.

It is a glimmer of a better life, a sparkle of dreams and aspirations, a dose of happiness to help make bad days better. Somehow, I am reminded of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl, as she gazed through the window of a home not her own, and took solace in the warm glow of the fire and in the love of the family – none of which she could really feel, physically. That fire and that love could not warm her body, but it certainly warmed her spirit and gave comfort when she needed it most. I see the parallelism between that and people basking in the warmth of Christmas.

Is this hope fleeting? Could be. It is merely an illusion? Perhaps. For, at the end of the season, not much changes, really. Not much, except for maybe a person’s outlook and drive to keep going. Who is anyone to take all this away?

Besides, sometimes, a spark of renewed hope is all we need to bring on a blazing transformation. Let’s get back to the basics, shall we? There’s more power in the simple than we think.

Amidst the hustle and bustle, the hassles and burdens of life in Manila, I, along with the entire Expat team, wish us all a merry, transformative, transformational; Christmas season – whether in August or December, or whatever other time of year.