Monday, December 21, 2009

Brief sermon about a future “Xmas” and happy new year

Our country may be in the Northern hemisphere of the tropics, but the winter solstice is not as heavily noticed here as it is in the more northern zones with winters, is it? Thus, in our country, any celebration on the 25th of Decembershould it be in reference to a solar deityought not to make any sense, as should not any other special tropical communion with nature anytime during the entire month of December. In ancient Rome, December 25th was celebrated as the birth of the solar deity the Unconquered Sun (Dies Natalis Solis Invicti) because that day was seen by the Julian calendar as when the duration of daylight first began to increase after the winter solstice. The winter solstice occurs sometime between December 21 and 22.

     Even before the post-winter solstice feast, the ancient Romans would already be celebrating the Brumalia festival, which was a copy of the Greeks’ Lenaia festival, lasting for one month and culminating on December 25. Brumalia was in honor of Bacchus, the god of drinking and merriment, with festivities often occurring on the eve of December 24. Note that in Latin the word bruma means “shortest day” or “winter solstice.”
     Yule or Yule-tide, meanwhile, was a pagan festival of the Germanic peoples, which lasted from late December to early January. The festival Yule or Jul was later placed on December 25 after the adoption of the Julian calendar in that part of ancient Europe.
     During the Yule season, the Germanic Druids brought into their homes evergreen trees to signal the oncoming plentiful fruitage in their groves. They hung apples and fruits on their tree, lit candles on it as symbol of the sun’s informing on photosynthesis. And as a way of saying goodbye to the wintry days as well as the year past, they burned the trees’ trunk parts in a ceremony called the Yule Log.
     Now, before we try and discuss how Emperor Constantines time may have appropriated the above Greek and Roman and Germanic feasts to merge with his newfound Christianity (the earliest Christian Christmas celebration having been traced to 330 AD during Constantine’s reign), lets consider first the birthplace of the God (or to the Arians, the god) of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth.
     You see, a visit to Bethlehem, Palestine, in winter will tell you that temperatures could range from 1 to 13 degrees Celsius, and if we are therefore to follow the teachings of Christian fundamentalists it would indeed be hard to imagine shepherds and their sheep braving that freezing temperature to be with the stars above their sheep in the snowed-on rocks. Some of these preachers emphatically argue that December could not have been the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. But Mac McCarty, my Pentecostal preacher-friend, says that’s ethnocentric, offering that if one “knows anything about shepherds, especially in temperate zones and, worse, places like New Zealand,” he’d know that there is nothing at all strange about shepherds being out in 1-to-13-degrees-Celsius weather. “The colder the weather, the softer the wool!” he explains.
     Still, bearing that in mind and holding your arguments for a sec, let’s go back to Constantine. You see, the Bible was written after Constantine. In the Catholic Encyclopedia article on the Canon of the New Testament, the authors wrote: The idea of a complete and clear-cut canon of the New Testament existing from the beginning, that is, from Apostolic times, has no foundation in history. The Canon of the New Testament, like that of the Old, is the result of a development, of a process at once stimulated by disputes with doubters, both within and without the Church, and retarded by certain obscurities and natural hesitations, and which did not reach its final term until the dogmatic definition of the Tridentine Council.
     No wonder Oliver Cromwell abolished Christmas Day! It might also be noted that the earliest canonical Gospels, those of John and Mark, have no account of the nativity of Jesus, and the Tridentine Council would happen in the 16th century yet. Therefore, if the Emperor Constantine and early Christians had already proceeded with the symbolism associating the Nazarenes date of birth, presumably not known then, with the Yule season, for symbolic purposes or for purposes of pacifying the pagans and Roman religions celebrating Saturnalia and facilitating their assimilation into the new official religion of the Emperor, the decision would have been logical, considering that any implication—from any Gospel about Jesus birth as witnessed by shepherding shepherds—that it all occurred in summer had yet to be composed during that period of the declaration.
     So, it wouldnt have been those early Christians fault to have Jesus’ birthday pinned to this donkey of a date. It would instead be the fault of later Christian leaders, including the Council of Trent that was contemporary to the progress of the Christianization of the tropical New World, who allowed the thought to continue that Christmas occurred during winter.
     Fortunately, it has remained symbolic, surefor those who are able to experience the winter solstice, including Rome and Bethlehem. But even here in the tropics, in the centuries after the Thirty Years War and the religious expansion race in the Americas, late December could still be an apt symbolic spot for a messiahs birth, given that this season proceeds to the celebration of a New Year, complete here in our parts with the present tradition of hurling fireworks to the skies to meet a new dawn. Never mind that the Jesus birth in a new dawn context is often obscured by our quirky New Year celebrations and events, quirky as when Filipino Christians become Chinese Buddhists or Taoists on New Year’s Day, dangling those handy red feng shui books and round fruits.

Philippine Christmas Today
In truth, these days, the original context of our Christmas celebrations, like all other contexts in our countrys daily ceremonies, has been drowned out by a different religion called Christmas economics. The more elitist one’s Christmas economics is, the betterthat’s the new holiness. In fact, certain elitist formalities can be heard to scoff at the use of “Xmas” (considered vulgar) in favor of the more official and formal “Christmas,” never mind that “X” is the first letter of the word “Christ” in Greek (Χριστός) or that “Christmas” is actually the bastardized spelling of “Christ's Mass.
     In fact, Christmas doesn’t mean anything anymore other than a valued season for monetary fluidity and dynamic liquidity. Gifts exchange hands, or charity is activated with the potential for tax rebates, and streetside bankers’ loans are acquired for celebratory purposes, the food trade as well as the church trade both at a high. This economics’ exact parallel in Jesus’ time was the rapid one that occurred during the Passover, with hard-earned currencies exchanging hands near the temples to pay for the hefty sums Caiaphas extracted from the faithful’s cleansing of their feet at the Sanhedrin-sponsored Old Temple Jacuzzi pools.
     In our time, caroling has also become a vehicle for juvenile as well as organizational beggary, Christmas trees a symbol for Chinas and SM department stores’ plastic superiority, and the midnight mass—like any other Catholic mass celebration—an opportunity to pray for a new washing machine and to guffaw at the neighbors fashion sense as well as gossip on the beautiful and the ugly at church.
     But charity above all is loudly expressed, especially the Philippine elites charity events which have traditionally put a premium on giving and sharing over and above that other form of charity promoting the giving and sharing of the ability to give and share. In our market economics, that latter is called socialism and is deemed anti-Christian.
     Meanwhile, as I write this, Mayon Volcano is expressing its own season with Alert Level 4 hoisted upon the residents of Albay province, denying many Bicolano Christians the opportunity to share in the material holidays. But politicians on the campaign trail for the 2010 elections are promising the electorate with abstracts devoid of details, acting as the poverty-stricken nation’s new messiahs, and the recent involvement of the Arroyo government-coddled Ampatuan clan’s Maguindanao provincial dictatorship in a massacre case has—despite all the Judasian faux arrests and hypocritical speeches—yet to show real progress in bringing justice to the victims beyond Pontius Pilates white-, I mean, hand-washing. I say hypocritical speeches because those speeches from Malacañang Palace seem to deny having not made a similar effort to investigate the abduction and killing of Maguindanao teachers during the election of new senators for the Arroyo empire in 2007 AD. . . .
     And because Christmas has become an economic more than a religious festival in our country, those devoid of the privilege to share, because of a financial inability, won’t be able to share, and some are already despairing over this inability. So, now, I—being one of those with that inability—shall venture to share my thoughts about bringing back the old contexts for potential present evaluations, with the hope that perhaps I can help revitalize virtuous and valuable contexts for a more aware society, if that is possible.

Our country’s kowtowing to the traditions of the Northern Hemisphere is apt symbol of how colonized we are through our culture, and the only way by which a tropical Christian nation can counter-colonize an invasive Western Christian culture (along with its symbols) is to contextualize and then aptly and quickly re-contextualize (counter-contextualize) those same traditions. Let me offer some such ways of arriving at a potential re-contextualization:

1. The Jesus Christ Way
Firstly, the Christian context, which I already mentioned above but which we can repeat here: even with an awareness of the controversy surrounding the Nazarene’s birth during this month, placing his unknown birth’s celebration in this month can actually still be considered universally appropriate due to its proximity to New Year’s day, with all that day’s trappings in trying to meet a new dawn manifest as potential signifiers.
     Christmas can then be considered as a sort of season for thanking ones Lord for the year past as well as a season of prayers for a progressive year ahead. (Or should we delete those last five words and deny having anything in common with the prosperity theology of the Yoido Full Gospel Church?)
     In that case, all the present celebrations and traditions would have to be modified to fit into this re-contextualization. For instance, the Germanic Yule log (burning the evergreen Christmas tree’s trunk to say goodbye to the jungle ugliness of the past) can be incorporated into our Christian nation’s Christmas season activities in place of the now-maligned midnight-hour firecrackers that’s becoming more profitable to a nation of hospitals and Betadine manufacturers than to the larger luck-seeking nation. The log can also represent all the bad trees that fell on our paths during typhoons Ondoy (Ketsana) and Pepeng (Parma)—thus the necessary burning. Implementing this transformation in our customs can also prove itself beneficial to the country’s under-appreciated logging industry, which shall henceforth supply everyone with the necessary Yule logs for these prayer-celebrations for a bountiful year ahead.
     The only problem might be the newness of it, so perhaps instead of burning the logs some of us can burn plastic Christmas trees instead. Plastic-burning is after all more in tune with Filipino landfill management customs. A bigger ozone hole this transformation will contribute to the entire globe will render us more able to see a brighter Bethlehem star in the heavens, should such a Bethlehem star come back to within our view in a sort of second coming.
     As for those Christmas trees, the hung apples can be revived, especially since imported apples are now cheaper than locally-farmed but for-export mangoes, and thus would be the better symbol for the Philippines’ kowtowing to the WTO religion surrounding the heaven of economies of scale. We can light little electronic candles on these trees, all made in China, which by their being a fire hazard can already qualify them as the recurrent Filipino vehicle for clearing squatter zones to make way for prosperous industrial beauty. After all, we might take note that, by the proof of our prayers, divine blessings today are measured by the amount of industrial production and products that a country booms with at the expense of the Catholic Church-sponsored bloated surplus of workers in the population. Blessed are the not so meek.

2. The Bacchus Route
An alternative renovation of our Christmas habits can be coursed through the bringing in of the Roman Brumalia month-long bacchanalian celebration, which shall also culminate on the 25th of December. But, this time, not in honor of a god of drinking and merriment (Bacchus) but of God Himself as that mono-deity who has been able to provide our country with the materiel for our street corner or bar or terrace drinking binges and lightheaded merriment. In this regard, the sole governmental and business sector adaptation—apart from the beer fest-like celebrations—would be in requiring people to create a song that would praise God as the Christian God of Bountiful Alcohol that keeps this nation sane amidst all the carefree, drunken legalese in governance itself.
     The bacchanalian feast can commence on Andres Bonifacio Day in late November, which is just right considering our heroes are mostly martyrs like Jesus of Nazareth himself. The alcohol can then be presented as an alibi for the general cowardice that made the heroes martyrs in the first place, all in cognizance of the fact that any heroism gets sublimated into martyrdom when it leans on the support of a more popular cowardice or sleepiness among its neighbors.
     In that regard, consider the heroism of CNN Hero of the Year Efren Peñaflorida. By his example, the definition of heroism has become this: one that the government tolerates in his designing for himself those things that seem to work. For, surely, that heroism will get a medal from Malacañang, but that doesn’t mean that such heroism will be emulated or appropriated by, say, a prideful Department of Education that might merely understandably scoff at such heroic non-profit ways. Manny Pacquiao is a sports hero symbolizing hard work, dedication, and persistence, but that doesn’t mean our leaders will point to those symbolized virtues as more important than the symbol (or emblem).
     It’s the same with Jesus of Nazareth, who is now nothing more than a plastic child in a manger at SM department stores instead of the revolutionary irritant in his day’s conventional Jewish wisdom. Hooray! The symbol has become more important than what he/it symbolized. But that doesn’t have to be so, for behind the losses in all that symbology, he/it—Jesus—still symbolizes something. Except that, this time, the symbolism has become more lightheaded than utterly serious, more economics-serving than ethics-directed. Supposedly we’ll be happier that way, and maybe we are, drunken by the daze of a blind celebration.

3. Pagan Julian’s Guidance
Finally, we may opt for the continued use of the word Yule or Jul, which probably points to the “pagan” Roman emperor Julian. Its validity for Philippine use can be propounded thus: our Christian beliefs are often pagan beliefs, anyway, for we pray to sculptures as well as shiver in imagined salvation by the droplets of holy water culled from the convent’s faucet. We recognize more divine pleasure in touching the altar leaf than from understanding the pedantic parables of the Nazarene.
     I am not being ironic and saying this is bad, I am merely saying this is what we are all about. Thus, if we are to change anything it is easier to change the context instead of the people’s mentality. Thus, here, renovation would be by the simpler, though drastic, gradual easing out of the New Testament in our bibles in favor once again of the holier-than-thou ethnic ceremonies of the Old, with its clearer political-cum-nationalist (or war-friendly) contexts.
     So, in line with the worship of idols, and with the season’s ultimate culmination on New Year’s Day in its having done away with environment-unfriendly fireworks, a shift to the firing of guns in the air should be in order. This will be in celebration of our honesty and the renouncement of our old hypocrisy that had been saying, “we’re clean, we’re gunless, we’re a peaceful society.” A renewed firearm revelry in our Palestine will show the world these symbols of our courage, our idol Gun-Gods that have made us the best country in the world in the sport of executing journalists and NGO workers. We can by this idolatry regain our pre-Hispanic culture wherein datus ruled, claiming our divine wisdom back from the days when the whole archipelago was still a happy land of brave warlords.
     In fact, this transformation might even bring back the old religiosity, with everyone praying under the backhoe to such Ampatuan patriarch-like figures in Philippine leadership, mumbling simple words of prayer like, “Landlord, please hear our prayer.”

So, you see, re-contextualizing doesn’t mean changing our people’s ways to fit into the context of their actions, which is hard to do given our government’s education department’s often misappropriated funds. Re-contextualizing is easier when we merely change the meaning of the existing actions and objects themselves in order to make them fit into our ready and existing culture.
     So, thats it. Thats my essay-sermon for this season. Merry Christ’s Mass every one, including the masses always merry in their rebellion-free contentment, and a Happy New Gregorian Year ahead. May our population increase and multiply by Pope Gregory’s wish, as should the churches’ bounty in the year of our Lord (Jesus, the revolutionary theologian now mere plastic holy relic) twenty hundred and ten. By the way, that year-number can be written with the peso sign, that being the new sign of our daily cross in trying to fill the VAT, our holy grail offering to those Glorious Arroyo loans from China, the Red-Nosed Reins, Dear. [END]


  1. 1. Orbital Mechanics
    The winter solstice is not very noticeable here because we live in the tropics. That means we live between the Tropic of Capricorn & the Tropic of Cancer. While I willingly forego any discussion of astrology or of Henry Miller here, I will mention the planet’s 23 degree axial tilt—the reason we have seasons here on earth.

    If we imagine the earth as a giant gyroscope or, more aptly for this culture, the spinning top of one of the kids outside in my street, our home planet spins at a tilt, and just like one of those tops, if it moves around it will remain tilted in the same direction. (You can check this out by catching a spinning top in your hand & then rotating your body around—but not too fast or you’ll get dizzy, fall over & ruin the whole experiment.)

    At the solstice, the North Pole is tilted directly away from the sun at a 23 degree angle and the sun is (guess where) directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. (At the time of the summer solstice, it’s directly over the Tropic of Cancer—which may explain the need for sun-block during the summer.) Only within the tropics are we blessed to see the sun directly overhead—north & south of those imaginary lines the sun just never makes it all the way. Here in the tropics, we’re blessed to see the sun directly over our hatted or umbrella covered heads not just once, but twice a year. Living in the tropics also means that the length of our day varies so little from season to season that many people notice no change at all.

    But I will share with you one of my personal pleasures about the solstices: dawn & dusk! To have any appreciable dawn or dusk, the sun must appear to travel “along” the horizon (because of the tilt). Most of the year, there is almost no noticeable travel—the sun just seems to plop down under the horizon. It’s during the solstices that it takes the sun the longest to go all the way down. This contrasts with the 24 hours of dusk this time of year above the Arctic Circle. There, the sun seems to rotate all the way around the horizon while never really rising—that’s a long dusk (or dawn—depending how or when you look at it).

    So, way up North, where the culture of all these celebrations originate, there was, in ancient times—before axial tilt was understood—really something to fear: the days had (since the Autumnal Equinox) been getting shorter and shorter and there was no guarantee that the trend wouldn’t continue forever, leaving the world in perpetual darkness. But there was also cause for celebration—because it didn’t happen! In the interest of space & the general sanity of readers, I’ll refrain from any discussions of the Equinoxes, except to say that the Vernal Equinox (associated with Easter) translates as “the day of equal spring.” I don’t know why, but I love that!

    2. Cultural Colonialism
    Briefly (for a change of pace) I’ll say that as a subscriber to the school of “cultural anthropology” as championed by the likes of Herskovits et al, I believe that all culture is borrowed culture. Christianity, holidays with origins in Northern Europe and even such locally prized institutions as the fiesta are not cultural colonialism—they’re just our culture. There was a time when such “items of culture” could have been rejected (the natives of the archipelago could have killed all the Spanish explorers, for instance, or refused to trade with anybody from China) but that time has long since come and gone. There is, of course, such a thing as cultural hegemony—which is alive and well even as I write—but I will address that issue below.

  2. 3. Dead vs Heroes – Heroes vs Idols
    You mention national heroes, a subject about which I have written at length and still have a great deal to say, but what I want to emphasize here is that if there’s one thing a hero needs, it is to be safely dead. If you doubt this, just remember “poor old Aguinaldo” getting trotted out in parades and such for the delight & entertainment, first of the Americans, later by a series of Filipino presidents whose politics had nothing in common with whatever it was the poor old man believed.

    The need to be dead has very little to do with our heroes actual human foibles, it’s much worse than that! Anyone who lives long enough is either going to face that temptation that they are unable to resist or, worse, trust someone who’s going to lie to them. I say the latter case is worse because who would a hero trust? Someone they had every reason to trust, a loyal friend & supporter, someone they believe must be telling them the truth. I’ll not go into a list of “fallen” heroes here—the list would be too long and you already know many of the stories. The real problem was very simple in each case, all these perceived heroes would have left behind totally untarnished memories—if they had had the good sense to die!

    Ok, I admit there is another sort of hero: the redeemed. I believe we have to look at Ninoy, for instance, as a case of redemption. His pre-martial law history is less than pearly white. But in exile (well, he had some “moral” problems even then, if gossip is to be believed) he achieved a sort of redemption—and he really did change (perhaps his triple bypass operation helped—coming so near death is not without its effects). But even then, Ninoy had the good sense to get himself killed before his redemption could be tested in the murky waters of Filipino politics.

    So, I fully support your notion of having a nice long holiday of drunkenness. It is a good, traditional way of celebrating the peacefully demised and of showing sympathy (and regrets) for the less fortunate who lived long enough to demonstrate the primary weakness of human nature.

    4. Marketing Schemes, New Holidays & When Culture is Changeable
    So, we come to the notion of new holidays. As you point out, the main purpose of holidays is marketing. I remember, for instance, when Halloween was not a holiday here at all. But it was just too good a marketing gimmick to pass up. The chance to sell out the accumulated over-stock of candy in advance of the over stocking of Christmas candy, the opportunity to sell masks & costumes (and China so close—bulk purchases at a big discount and low shipping charges to boot!) and other goodies that no marketer could ever associate with a drab affair like All Saint’s Day. Such a deal!

    I mentioned above the fact that it is possible to counter cultural hegemony. But that countering has to work against the cultural pressure we face at the moment—if we wait, it becomes the past and, as such, is already a valid cultural borrowing. It’s necessary to strike while the iron is hot. Now, the marketing aspect of holidays is already in place—Pinoys are great at marketing! It only remains to select new holidays that have real national appeal as well as the required market potential.

    For instance, we have no holidays dealing with volcanic eruptions, though we’ve had some really fine ones that are wanting celebration. How about a Mt. Pinatubo national holiday? After all, not only did that one change the lay-of-the-land in Pampanga, it hastened the removal of the US bases and even helped lower the temperature of our overheating planet for a couple of years. If that’s not worth a holiday, I don’t know what is!

    To go a step farther, if we could rid ourselves of certain people and problems, which you point out in your regular astute way, then we would have even more to celebrate.

    All that would remain at that point would be to find the marketing angle.

  3. Wonderful, Jo! Thanks for providing us with that valuable history. All Filipinos (actually all Christians) should read this, especially that stuff about cultural imperialism and the primacy of marketing over spirituality these days. I hope your kids read it too... ;-)

    I wish I had read this sooner so I could have posted it on my wall. It would have been perfect in late November or early December. But the day before Christmas might not be enough time for people to absorb its philosophical point and might just put a damper on all of them, especially after all that shopping and praying and shopping and eating... :D But maybe I just will....

    Celebrating the Unconquered Sun with u, my friend! And thank u for reminding us about the season's deeper meaning.