MANILA -- A few years ago, singer-songwriter Jose Mari Chan was invited to perform in Lanao del Norte, a predominantly Muslim province in Mindanao. At the time, Chan had been in the industry for decades, with several hits under his belt. He sang his most popular songs — "Afterglow," "Deep in My Heart," "Can We Just Stop and Talk Awhile," among others — yet the crowd wanted more.
To his surprise, the audience did not ask him to sing another love song. Even if it was at the height of summer, they wanted to hear him sing “Christmas in Our Hearts,” his famous holiday song released in 1990.
“These are Muslims who don’t believe in our Lord so that’s when I realized na ‘yong awitin na ‘yon, nag-cross siya ng borders and it crossed all ages. So, it’s God’s blessing. Alam mo kasi (You know) music itself is a gift from God and most composers ang hope namin, ang wish namin na long after we are gone, ‘yong mga songs na sinulat namin will still be sung by people. So, this has been fulfilled by 'Christmas in Our Hearts' and every day, I thank God for the gift of music. I thank God for the gift of song that I’m able to share with the public,” he said.
Nearly 30 years since it was released, “Christmas in Our Hearts” not only blasts through mall speakers or is sung by carollers — it is also now a famous meme used by netizens as they count down the days until Christmas starting in September. Chan knows about these funny posts and gets a good laugh out of them. “Sabi ko (I said), they don’t run out of ideas, these people who create memes,” he noted.
Although he’s aware of his song popularity, Chan doesn't want to be called “Father of Christmas” or even “Voice of Christmas.”
“There’s only one Father of Christmas, it’s Jesus Christ. Alam mo kung minsan ang tinatawag ko sa sarili ko (You know what I sometimes call myself), I’m the little drummer boy that heralds the coming of the season. Dahil ngayon nga sa mga memes na ginagawa nila na 10 more days, so, little drummer boy na malapit na ang Christmas season,” he said.
MUSIC AS A HOBBY
Iloilo-born Chan moved to Manila to pursue an economics degree at the Ateneo de Manila University. Being the eldest of 5 siblings, Chan’s father had always wanted him to follow in his footsteps and take over the family’s sugar business one day. But the young lad’s interest in music was evident, so his father agreed to a “compromise,” in which it will remain a hobby.
In 1966, while still in college, television personality Pete Roa asked for the elder Chan’s permission for his son to host a daily show on ABS-CBN called “Nineteeners.” Although his father was initially reluctant, Chan said he eventually relented but on two conditions: that his grades won’t suffer and that he won’t be paid for the stint.
“It was only a few years later when I realized the wisdom ng daddy ko, why he did not want them to pay me a salary. Para hindi ako maengganyo to do that only (So that I won't be enticed to do solely that),” he said.
After obtaining his degree, he chose to focus on the company. Today, Chan considers himself a businessman by day and singer by night. He is chairman and CEO of a sugar company that supplies to a major soft drinks manufacturer.
WRITING CHRISTMAS SONGS
Before he became synonymous with Christmas in the Philippines, Chan was a well-known balladeer and composer. His album “Constant Change,” released in 1989, included the massive hits “Beautiful Girl,” and “Please Be Careful With My Heart.”
The following year, his record label, believing that they should “strike while the iron is still hot,” brought up the idea of releasing a Christmas album. The problem was that Chan did not have any melody for a Christmas song. He did, however, have a still unused composition entitled “Ang Tubig ay Buhay.”
Then one Sunday morning, just as he was about to exit the church after hearing Mass, a young lady ran after him and handed him a card, saying she wanted to someday collaborate with Chan on a love song. Her name was Rina Caniza. Chan phoned her and together they wrote the lyrics to what is now known as “Christmas in Our Hearts.”
With lyrics and melody completed, Chan was struck with the idea that it would be best sung as a duet. He initially wanted to partner with Lea Salonga, but her recording company did not allow her. His next option was Monique Wilson, but the theater actress had to back out a day before they were set to record after losing her voice. Someone suggested to him that he might want to tap his daughter Liza, instead. A sophomore then, Liza was studying for an exam when her father brought up the idea. She agreed and learned the song overnight.
“The next day, Liza and I went to the recording studio and we did it 1, 2, 3 and as they say, the rest is history,” he said.
The 1990 album included 3 more songs written by Chan — the upbeat “The Sound of Life” and “A Wish on Christmas Night,” and the holiday love song, “A Perfect Christmas.”
His face may have been circulating in the web since the start of September, when Filipinos are said to begin getting into the holiday spirit, but Chan and his family only start putting up their Christmas decor on December 1.
He recalled growing up with simple celebrations in Iloilo, with carolling as his favorite holiday tradition. In his own family, they also keep it simple, marked by Simbang Gabi, opening of gifts under the tree, and attending morning Mass on Christmas Day.
The father of 5 and grandfather of 8 believes that God has given him the gift for music and this has led him to write this well-loved Christmas classic.
“I think ginawa Niya talaga na it will culminate in writing 'Christmas in Our Hearts' and every day I thank God for it. Kasi parang it’s a gift of song that I gave to our country that keeps giving year after year after year so thank God for that,” he said.