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Re-calling Christmas

Christmas as we know it now - Christmas trees, Santa Claus, etc - was more of an American invention. But Yule-Tide - spelled as such in the book American Occupation of the Philippines 1898/1912 by James H. Blount - had a less than goodwill-of-a-memory by 1903. In the said account, a list of 57 and another of 63 Filipinos imprisoned by the Americans were all dead as having died in their respective jails (see “An American’s Account of Albay Part II” in Bicol Mail. FieldNotes for December 8, 2023).

Would they have survived if they were released? The book talks of the harrowing conditions in those jails in Albay, giving us a different image of the so-called Benevolent Assimilation. It appears the Americans were not that benevolent.

That could have been a great lesson for us about Christmas as forgiveness but the Americans introduce to us a practice whose content was not about the ideologies of redemption but more of the language of a feast day that would go down in history as our weaning away from the distinctly, if not the belabored and ponderous, Christian practices brought by the Spanish.

How did the Spanish friars introduce Christmas to our ancestors?

We can conjecture how certain theories speak of the Filipinos becoming fond of Christ as a baby - the Sto. Niño. We can cite here how this icon figured in the conversion of Rajah Humabon, his name being changed to “Carlos”) and his chief consort, Hara Humamay in some documents being given the Christian name “Juana.” If we go by this narrative, the first missionaries must have been very adept in altering the Child Jesus depicted as a mighty midget, the little emperor wearing a crown to an image of a helpless baby laid out in the manger.

It is said that Saint Francis Assisi was the one who initiated the setting up of the creche (the term is derived from the Latin word “cripia,” which means “crib”). Or with the more current “Belen,” the Spanish form of Bethlehem. Given the poverty though of the island and the rigid social structure then, coupled by the fact that conversion did not cover the entire archipelago, the Nativity scene as we know it now must have been limited to the elite or in churches where the sacred display was done in December.

And yet literatures abound also pointing to how the Filipinos converted to Catholicism by identifying with the Suffering or Dead Christ.How do we deal with the story of the first Christmas when the Son of God was made Man if we are faced with a bleeding and tortured icon?

If we go by extant practices about Christmas, we can identify four: one involves the Tres Reyes or Three Kings and the other is about the story of Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem for the census when the latter was already about to give birth. The third is a commemoration of the death of the Innocents in the hands of the soldiers of Herod. The fourth is about the Shepherds, this time as dancers from the hinterlands dancing for a few pesos, announcing how the birth of the Redeemer was revealed to them first.

In some parts of Luzon, we hear of the ritual around the Three Kings where children go from house to house singing about the Magi. In return they are given treats by the homes they visit. If you look closely at this, you can sense that we do have a local version of trick or treat, without the trick. Or maybe that part has disappeared through the years after all, if you remember these wise men tricked Herod into believing there was no Messiah. Or some such ruse.

In the highly urbanized Makati, l witnessed a parade of Three Kings in full regalia and with tall horses to add to the grandeur.

In some parts of the Visayas, I heard of a rite where Three Kings would set a day where they would wash the feet of children. Cultural analysts think of this event as manifesting humility, simulating the humblest symbol found in the Son of God being born not in a palace but in a manger, surrounded by shepherds and animals.

These ceremonials are dense and hide more significant meaning than what is seen by our very eyes. More than humility, the festivities on the Three Kings hold the claim that generosity is most valued in our communities. The “big people” or “darakulang tawo” as re-interpreted by Fr. Frank Lynch, the Jesuit anthropologist whose fieldwork was Canaman, are responsible for giving. From that gesture is born the notion of reciprocity - the pagbalos by the “saradit na tawo” or the poor people, literally the “small people.” However, from a more critical approach, the ritual of the Three Kings is a polyphonic - expressing different sounds or meanings - symboling of how patron-client relationship remains as a theme of social structures in Philippine societies. In Christmas, these signs and symbols surface again.

Most compelling of the stories (mostly apocryphal but do the masses care?) is the search for the inn where Mary would at least be safe during the birth of Jesus. From this account our communities have generated the most dramatic and practical ritual that is based on the concept of home.

If Christmas were love, the ultimate symbol of it is sharing one’s home. On the cold evening of the 24th or some other days, there are still groups that go around the towns singing the search for any hospitable site for the birth of the Messiah. This is a drama that many Filipinos - homeless, or so poor to own a house, or squatting - understand painfully well.

Maogmang Pasko sa gabos!


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