The Christmas holiday season in the Philippines starts in earnest after All Souls’ Day. Gift lists are updated, the holiday-party, vacation and reunion schedules finalized.
Weeks prior, the mall and tiangge merchants are already on holiday marketing mode, playing carols to set the mood and reeling in customers with irresistible discount sales. But now is the time when it builds to a frenzy, with the media providing a daily countdown to the ultimate date on every Filipino’s calendar.
We are known to have the longest Christmas season—the so-called “ber months” from September to December. It is supposed to be the season of giving, but it is also the season of the greatest buying.
Ours is a consumer-driven economy, fueled by remittances from overseas Filipino workers and the booming business process outsourcing (BPO) industry. The economy is, in general, fast recovering from the bad dream of the pandemic lockdowns. More and more we hear of certain sectors of the Filipino public acquiring increased purchasing power, the ability to buy big-ticket items like SUVs and second homes, even every working stiff’s ideal: a motorcycle.
Financial planner’s nightmare
The Filipino consumer is every financial planner’s nightmare, so willing to spend on the latest fad, with minimal savings (only 5 out of 10 Filipinos have bank accounts, compared to 9 out of 10 Malaysians and Thais) and even more minimal investments, if any (less than 1% of the population invests in the stock market). It used to be that we got gifts and new things only on our birthday and during Christmas. Now there need not be an occasion; there is in fact the practice of “retail therapy” where we shop to feel good about ourselves and the world, and which has even gained the dimensions of “revenge shopping” and “revenge travel” after the deprivations experienced during the pandemic lockdowns.
Surely consumption is not in itself bad because we do have needs and consumers make producers happy, production and consumption being part of the same economic cycle. Ever-increasing production efficiencies have made products more affordable, leading to greater appetites for even the most impulse-driven purchases.
Consumption is the new religion, the new lifestyle. Life must not be just lived, it must be enjoyed with all the trimmings. Mall developers are keenly aware of this and have sought to bring under one roof all manner of products and services, from frontline government agencies, to Catholic Masses and leased spaces to other religious groups, to art galleries and convention centers—anything to bring in the buying public. Now practically every large-scale development is a mixed-use concept, with residential complexes attached or close to their own malls, BPO buildings, and transportation terminals.
Who said malls are the temples of consumption? More than temples, they are now embodiments of our souls.
Actually, one does not even have to go to the mall anymore to shop. The boom in e-commerce enables you to shop from wherever you are at any time, for whatever item anywhere in the world, with your smartphone.
Where’s the spirit?
So where is the spirit of Christmas in all this?
The Misa de Gallo seems to be the only Christmas ritual where there is self-denial and a measure of self-sacrifice, some tinge of spiritual giving. Not only because you have to wake up very early and do it for nine consecutive days, but also because you often have to endure homilies from priests who are far from enlightening or engaging. It is supposed to prepare us for the Nativity. Little do we suspect that that nativity is actually ours.
The birth of the historical Christ occurred in a time of extreme turmoil and utter subjugation of the Jews under the Roman overlords. The Jews were practically clutching at straws, awaiting the coming of the true messiah in a long succession of prophets. And when he finally came, they crucified him. Or, to be specific about it, the Romans did, as it so happened that their political interests jibed with the selfish interests of the Jewish hierarchy at the time.
Christ came to redeem us from sin, we are told, and Christmas is the special time when we welcome him into our lives. Actually, in the modern sense, he came to redeem us from ourselves, from the very materialistic values we have imbibed, and the delusion that when we have the power to buy, we have power over our lives.
In the land of endless want, it is only fitting that we also have an endless Christmas.