Saturday, December 20, 2008

In the spirit of the season...


This was my column last Wednesday. Late post again.


As far as I am concerned, the official countdown to Christmas officially started only yesterday with the onset of the Misa de Gallo, more popularly known by the misnomer Simbang Gabi. Of course media organizations, business establishments and everyone else in the business of promoting consumerism started their own countdowns as early as September.

The pundits and the many self-styled disciples of Uncle Scrooge have been predicting a bleaker Christmas this year. But they’ve actually been saying this since 1997, when the Asian contagion broke out, trundling out the usual statistics and the usual indicators and benchmarks.

One interesting indicator that has evolved into an annual tradition is the computation of the projected cost of the gifts cited in the carol “Twelve Days of Christmas.” There’s a group that regularly goes through the exercise of computing the monetary value of all those dancing ladies, golden rings, French hens, turtle doves and partridges assuming they were to be purchased at the current exchange rates. As can be expected, the total cost has gone up this year.

The whole exercise has its merits. It helps remind everyone, tongue-in-cheek, that even Christmas is puny to commercial considerations. Unfortunately, the exercise further blurs the historical, cultural, even religious meaning of this particular carol. Surely, there is also wisdom in letting people know that, for example, the seven swans-a-swimming refer to something else other than a gaggle of graceful geese.

The most commonly used indicators in our country are the skyrocketing costs of the stuff that serve as traditional Noche Buena fare—a leg of ham, quezo de bola, fruit salad, etc. Around this time of the year, media go to town with sob stories about how certain families will no longer be able to afford having ham and cheese on their Christmas dinner table. They will feature images of families living in the most wretched conditions. There will be footages of young children not having their share of enjoyment at Christmastime—no toys, no new clothes, and not even a slice of ham and a thin wedge of cheese on a pan de sal. I know, having a feast is not the real essence of Christmas; but one has to be utterly stonehearted not to concede that good tidings and cheer are best appreciated with a little celebration.

These stories and images tug at the heartstrings of our lives; particularly at Christmastime. Unfortunately, because these images haunt our daily existence, the impact has been somehow dulled. Nevertheless, in an ideal world where people truly understand and imbibe the Christmas spirit, these should translate into more acts of charity rather than serve as mere fodder for political causes. I am not disputing the connection between poverty and corruption, but I wish media would also highlight more possibilities such as what ordinary people like you and me can do for the poor, particularly in this season of giving and loving.

Which is why it has always been my fervent wish that media coverage of this particular human element story be slanted toward giving people ideas on what they can do, or conversely, try not to do, particularly at Christmastime. For example, I wish people would tone down the lavishness of their Christmas parties and instead donate part of their funds to charity. At a time when a crisis is in the offing and many people face the very real possibility of not having jobs or at least reduced incomes in the coming months, it does not make sense to throw extravagant parties.

I also wish people would not be as wasteful with food and other resources particularly at Christmas parties where the norm is to stuff one’s self to the gills and pickle one’s liver with alcohol. One of the embarrassing traits of many of our fellow Filipinos is this penchant for overstuffing their plates with food from the buffet table, most which end up at the trash box.

Some people have come up with what they think as witty remark when reminded that there are lots of people who are hungry and who would give an arm and a leg just to be able to partake of the wasted food: “If I consumed that leftover food, would their hunger be sated?” Truly, the things we do or say to justify our frailties.

Even gift-giving can be made more sensible and done in ways that add more meaning to the season. It’s a given that Christmas and other special occasions have become so commercialized that we’ve come to associate enjoyment of these occasions with certain consumerist symbols; but there are still ways to balance commercialism with certain degree of social relevance.

Thus, instead of the usual consumer items, people may consider giving as Christmas presents products that are livelihood or fundraising projects of individuals, organizations or communities with distinct social advocacies or needs. There are quite a number of them—from orphanages, to women’s groups, to non-government organizations working on specific social issues such as HIV/AIDS, reproductive health, children’s rights, even water and sanitation.

And if one does not have the time or the inclination to go out on a limb to access these groups, there are products that can be bought from stores that are at least organic or do not harm the environment. One can also try not using plastic or non-biodegradable materials for wrapping.

A friend thinks that it’s futile to rile against commercialism, particularly since the main proponent and beneficiary of lavish spending and meaningless gift-giving is big business, which obviously has more resources to propagate consumerism. But there’s always hope. And this, I think is one essence of the season that is glossed over in favor of the more “fun” aspects of the season such as giving and loving.

For most of us, Christmas is simply about rejoicing and, okay, some giving. It’s sad of course that the reason for the rejoicing or the gift-giving is often forgotten in the merrymaking. People often forget the first seven letters of the word Christmas (Blogger Abaniko pointed out the glaring mistake in this sentence. Mea culpa - Bong A, December 21) . Sadder still is the fact that the spirit of hope does not figure as much in our celebrations.

I was asked to judge a Christmas theme contest in a company I consult with recently. The entries were mostly in Tagalog and most of them were about Christmas being an occasion for fun, loving, unity, teamwork, etc. In short, the usual trite messages of the Yuletide season. One entry, however, stood out. It was the only entry with a message of hope. The profundity of the suggested theme is lost in translation, but it talked about how it is having hope in our hearts that make Christmas more meaningful.

The giving, the loving, the rejoicing are all important aspects of the season. But so is hope. After all, it has been said that hope is the fuel that makes the heart run. When we come down to it, hope is what makes people believe in Christmas; the one thing that makes people look forward to it or the New Year. It’s the reason why we give gifts or try to be nicer to others— because we hope for sweeter, better things.

Particularly at a time like this, Christmas should be an occasion to hope: For better things to come, perhaps for more tolerance and understanding, for a more humane society, and in general, for a better world.

4 comments:

Abaniko said...

"People often forget the first seven letters of the word Christmas."

CHRISTM? :)

Merry Christmas to you and your family, Bong!

Bong C. Austero said...

omg. hahaha. thanks for pointing out the mistake. no excuse for the error but plain studipity.

merry christmas to you and your family too!

bong austero

Abaniko said...

No big deal, actually. As they say, "tao lang." Hehe. But my pointing the minor lapse only means I read your posts word for word Bong, even to the extent of counting the letters. Haha. Nice articles you have here on your blog.

Cheers!

Bong C. Austero said...

thanks, abaniko.
I do visit your blog as often as I can too.