We Filipinos take Christmas very seriously. It's the biggest holiday in our calendar, the longest running fiesta, the blowout we save up for all year. We pull out all the stops and let nothing stand in our way of having a maligayang pasko: not catastrophe, calamity, civil disturbance, coup attempt or even that popular circus attraction, politics. If you've never experienced a Philippine Christmas, here are descriptions of some traditions that will help you understand -- and even survive -- the event.
We start preparing for Christmas fairly early, and by "early" I mean "September." That's when, visiting the malls, you will hear carols, which by tradition consist of nothing but tracks from the Ray Conniff Singers 1968 Christmas album played over and over. Perhaps the goal is to subliminally shoot disruptive waves into consumers' cerebral cortices so that by December they will be ready to rampage blindly through the mall, shopping dementedly. There's no truth to the rumor that local intelligence operatives use the Ray Conniff Christmas album as a tool for tactical interrogation. That would be cruel and inhumane.
One strong tradition is that families get together at all costs, and millions who are working abroad usually fly home all at once during December. If you're a foreign tourist, it is not a good idea to be caught at the international airport during this time -- wait, you mean you're there right now? Look out, there's an incoming family reunion- seeking horde! Here, let the helpful security guards scrape you off the floor. Are those your shoes back there?
With all these people arriving for the holidays, Manila becomes extra congested, something you'd think would be impossible. It's as if all of the city's inhabitants are at the malls shopping. But we all know that's just a silly exaggeration: actually, only half the inhabitants are in the malls -- the other half are stuck in traffic trying to get to the malls. They spend hours wedged in vehicles that barely move, but if they're lucky their spirits will be kept up by the Ray Conniff Christmas album their particular vehicle's sound system is playing.
Those who do manage to make it to the shops will join the traditional millions who -- yet again -- did not do their Christmas shopping early (during September) and are engaged in frantic last-minute buying. It is not advisable to get in the way of such shoppers: they've been programmed to be ruthless by months of listening to Ray Conniff carols played over mall speakers.
Apart from from desperate shopping and getting stuck in traffic, another Philippine Christmas tradition is binging. Filipinos eat and drink non-stop, stuffing themselves in party after party until they become big enough to play Santa Claus, assuming Santa looks as if he's a prime candidate for a heart attack and is also suffering from high blood pressure.
And speaking of high blood pressure, no Philippine Christmas is ever complete without the traditional cab drivers who completely disregard desperate waiting passengers, only deigning to pick up those they think are suitable fares -- for instance, those who will only ride a short distance (two blocks), or are willing to add half their Christmas bonus to whatever amount the taxi meter says. The traditional taxi driver motto during Christmas is "heh heh.."
Unfortunately, even if passengers want to put up with abusive cabbies, finding an empty taxi during the Christmas holidays is tough and competitive. You'll be standing on a street waiting, when another prospective passenger will suddenly appear and walk past you further down the street, closer to where the cab might come from. This forces you to walk past THAT passenger and eventually the two of you (if there are more it becomes really interesting) will try to outwalk each other, possibly ending up five kilometers farther away from your destination than when you originally started. At that point, you'll both realize there are actually no cabs to be had.
Those who do survive the shopping and the traffic then face the Christmas tradition called "The Envelope Please," which is marked by people such as the mailman, the bill collector, the newsboy, the garbage collectors, the water meter reader and assorted carolers showing up at your doorway waving envelopes for you to fill. HINT: they are not asking for Christmas cards.
Finally, in the midst of all this frenzy, consumption and expense, Filipinos never forget that Christmas is after all a religious holiday. Many of them observe the tradition of going to early morning masses where they will listen to the priest tell them to understand the true meaning of Christmas, which is to be good and obey the Lord -- because if they don't, the Lord will kill random innocent people in a far-away province with a typhoon.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.