There’s no fiesta like Christmas, and it’s aptly called the holiday season—a season that starts as early as the first days of December and extends to the last days of January. It even spills to mid-February, or up to the so-called “Feast of the Candelaria.” I know this from my parents, who were conservative Catholics. And they inherited their own Christmas culture from their own parents, who were “saradong Katoliko.”
The Christmas culture as it has reigned in the consciousness of Filipinos is a happy hybrid offspring of Spanish colonization and American imperialist domination of Philippine society. The festive meals noche buena and media noche coupled with the devotional attachment to the belen (nativity scene) and the extraordinary flair for the parol (Christmas lanterns) are obviously of Spanish influence. But the Christmas tree and the Christmas carol are a part of the culture transfer of American lifeways to Philippine social life.
More than four centuries of foreign acculturation have effectively woven a cultural matrix that welds both Spanish and American influences in the Christmas consciousness of present-day Filipinos.
Altogether, what has evolved as typical Filipino Christmas culture is an overflowing enthusiasm for practices attached to the celebration of the season. At the core of this brimming enthusiasm is a fiesta culture.
And in a Catholic country like the Philippines, a fiesta day is always pegged to the religious worship of a patron saint.
There are countless fiesta days in Philippine villages, towns and cities, each one dedicated to or held in honor of a citizen in heaven, such as San Jose, San Roque, San Antonio, and other saints and martyrs of the Faith. On top of these is the fiesta of the Santo Nino (Holy Child) and the Blessed Virgin Mary in all her various appellations and titles.
In the month of May, almost all the barrios in the archipelago claim devotional worship of the Santa Cruz (Holy Cross), and make this an elaborate celebration that often becomes more of a fashion show or a beauty pageant than a religious festivity—the Santacruzan, in which the presence of entertainment personalities invariably adds glamor and glitter to the occasion.
Season of love, etc., etc.
But nothing beats Christmas as a fiesta. It is, in fact, the fiesta of all fiestas. All sorts of attributions are given to Christmas—a season of love and charity, a season of grace and blessings, a season of forgiveness and reconciliation, a season of giving more than receiving, of caroling as fund-raising for a worthy project.
It is also a season for family reunions, for the coming home of overseas Filipino workers and estranged kin. And, perhaps, the most popular of all conceivable characterizations is: “Christmas is a season for children.”
Now, a special accent is infused into this dedicatory attribute of Christmas. Pope Francis paid special attention and concern to the youth in a special celebratory event during his visit to the Philippines in January 2015. However, one wonders if this rare species of a Pope also gives special premium to the fiesta character of Christmas, as it is celebrated by Filipinos. I doubt that he does, for his display of simplicity and apparent deep concern for the unfortunate humans of the world has the mark of a revolutionary trait: his “down-to-earth-ness” as an act of empathy—in his words and conduct as leader of the Christian Church.
I would like—or I wish—for him to go out of his way to bestow honor from his very lips on the struggles of the Indigenous Peoples and other doubly marginalized sectors of our society, and bring to center stage their miserable plight under this hypocritical government which has militarized their dwelling places and whose troops have been violating their human rights with impunity.
Nothing matters more for me in dragging the good Pope’s eminent name into a discussion of the extraordinary fiesta nature of Christmas among us Filipinos. Maybe I can be more sympathetic to and tolerant of the season’s jingle—“Tenk you, tenk you, ang babait ninyo, tenk you”—which the young carolers in our neighborhood shout in front of my house at one-minute intervals every evening for the duration of the “simbang gabi” (midnight Masses).
But in my heart of hearts, I would wish for these children—as I would wish for all adults of our society—to shun this pernicious propensity for fiestas in our consciousness, much more so this propensity for outward glitter and pasiklaban (one-upmanship) that only complicates or, rather, obfuscates the enduring misery and suffering of great numbers of our people. What our religious and secular leaders have been doing is to wage a pompous show of merciful acts of charity—deceitful cajolery—that only perpetuate the poverty of the masses.
And the extended Christmas fiesta fever is like a narcotic that pushes the masses into, and in effect trains little children in, imbibing the mendicant acts and practices of the season. Certainly, our government officials, by their own habits and conduct, demonstrate their seemingly unintentional encouragement of these attitudes among their constituencies, making the latter eternally dependent on their patronage and hoping for their generous blessings during the Christmas fiesta, as well as the fiesta-like electoral season.
And so, the fiesta of all fiestas runs to almost a quarter of the days of the year. It’s little wonder that underdevelopment and backwardness are a continuing plague on Philippine social reality.
Don Pagusara is a retired professor of Ateneo de Davao University. He is now a prominent member of a group of artists in Davao City called ALAMPAT, Ph. —Ed.