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Dec 18

The Explainer: Xmas

That was from a recent episode of the TV series, “Bones” where Dr. Brennan points to the Santa Claus as an instrument for child control.

Tonight on the Explainer, we’ll look at the ghosts of Christmases past, and the Coca-Colafication of our Christmases, where we little brown brothers all seem to dream of a White Christmas.

 

I. Peace, and quiet

 

A squalid, suffering metropolis. Prohibitively expensive food. Water, a scarce commodity; sanitation, non-existent. Throughout the  the city, thousands huddle in makeshift shanties. Many are ill-clothed; lucky if they can wear war surplus uniforms, or donations from foreign Red Cross agencies.

Congress has voted itself back wages. Officials seem to care only about making the most out of new opportunities for graft and profiteering. Crime is rampant, and besides the proliferation of loose weapons, many are fearful of soldiers and policemen. Security guards are in demand.

Many families are stricken by grief, mourning the loss of loved ones, the majority of whom lie in unmarked, mass graves.

And yet it is Christmas; not perhaps a Christmas of unbridled joy and lavish celebration, like the Christmases so vividly alive in the memories of those who now face an unsettling future, but Christmas just the same.

A composer, one of those who has lived through  the most harrowing days of the metropolis, surveys the city he calls home, and is struck by the contrast between the seeming hopelessness of it all, and the hearts of his fellow citizens. The cacophony of politics, the screaming headlines about corruption, killings, and the poverty of a people seem to vanish in the cold Christmas air. People seem to be content to be together with their loved ones, grateful for the peace limited to their homes. The night is quiet, and for once, peaceful.

 

He takes up his pen…

 

Ang gabi payapa

lahat ay tahimik

pati mga tala

sa bughaw na langit

 

Kay hinhin ng hangin

waring umiibig

sa kapayapahan

ng buong daigdig

 

Payapang panahon

ay diwa ng buhay

biyaya ng Diyos

sa sangkatauhan

 

Ang gabi payapa

lahat ay tahimik…

 

This was Manila, 1945: just a few months after that holocaust now commonly referred to as The Liberation,  claimed the lives of over a hundred thousand Filipino civilians. The composer was Felipe de Leon. The song he wrote  is the song we know as Payapang Daigdig , originally a hymn to peace, and now one of the most haunting Christmas songs you will ever hear.

This was sixty two years ago; but how familiar it all sounds! That yearning for a more spiritual dimension to Christmas –was it ever so?

Let me read to you, from a truly remarkable memoir. It’s by Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, and titled “Myself, Elsewhere.” Here’s her book, Pat, and let me read her description of Ermita Christmases in the 1920s and 1930s.

Carmen Guerrero Nakpil writes that for her generation, it wasn’t December 25 that got kids excited, but January 6, because that was the day when children got their presents. That was the Feast of the Three Kings:

We had never heard of Santa Claus, there were no Christmas trees in our houses and the Christmas presents on the day Christ was born came from our godparents (only one or two each and not droves of politicians) as a carryover from baptism. We observed the novena of early morning masses, Midnight Mass and Medianoche, but the big day (gifts-wise) was January 6th.

 

She goes on to write,

On that day, we believed, presents brought by camels all the way from the Holy Land had been left the night before by the Three Kings on our window sill or by the door. At dawn, we would be jumping out of our skins as we rushed to the window sill, ascertaining first whether all the grass we had left around our shoes was gone, for it meant the camels had come, before turning to the delight of our presents. It was the climax of the long, enthralling tradition of welcoming the Three Kings.

 

Nakpil describes the letter-writing habits of her generation:

The ritual consisted of writing letters to the Tres Reyes, in carefully thought out, elaborately persuasive Spanish, after long consultations with Mamá. We dreamt about the coming of the Reyes; Melchor, tall and very dark; Gaspar, fair-haired and portly; and Balthazar the most intriguing because he looked like a Filipino. The night before the 6th, we tucked our letters into a pair of our shoes, and arranged mounds of grass for the camels on the window sill. There were few lawns in Ermita so we had trouble procuring grass, especially the Middle Eastern type we assumed was preferred by camels…

 

And here, Pat and ladies and germs, is a Filipino Christmas so different from ours today, as to seem positively un-Filipino:

We did not care about new-fangled Christmas trees, because we had the belen, not just a crèche of the Holy Family, but a whole landscaped model of the town of Bethlehem, with the focus on the stables below the Star. It had trees made of tin and colored paper, a river and a pond made from mirrors; castles and houses, angels, shephers and inns-men; sheep and cows, and approaching, from afar, the Three Kings, whom we moved a few millimeters everyday nearer the manger… There were silk banners with long tassels, blue, white and red, hanging from every window that faced the street, so that the whole town looked like a medieval court before a joust.

 

Yet, as Nakpil noted, the commercialization, the Americanization, of Christmas had already begun. Belens may have been traditional, but the formerly Protestant Christmas Tree began to invade Catholic homes. And advertising was already featuring Santa.

Yet, as this editorial cartoon from 1939 shows, with commercialization came conscientious voices, bothered by excess. And with that view, the see-sawing moral struggle we face every holiday: excess and guilt in equal measure.

When we return, the commercialization and Santa-fication, of our Christmases.

 

II. I saw Momma Kissing Santa Claus

 

If you belong to my generation, then Christmas was the Jackson Five:

 

Santa claus is comin to town

Santa claus is comin to town

 

Youd better watch out

Youd better not cry

Youd better not pout

Im telling you why

 

Santa claus is comin to town

Santa claus is comin to town

Santa claus is comin to town

 

Hes making a list

And checking it twice

Gonna find out whos naughty and nice

 

Santa claus is comin to town

Santa claus is comin to town

Santa claus is comin to town

 

He sees you when youre sleeping

He knows when youre awake

He knows if youve been bad or good

So be good for goodness sake

 

Oh, youd better watch out

Youd better not cry

Better not pout

Im telling you why

 

Oh! santa claus is comin to town

Santa claus is comin to town

Santa claus is comin to town

 

Santa claus is comin to town

Santa claus is comin to town

Santa claus is comin to town

 

And for the Jackson 5 warning us of Santa’s dossiers on our childish crimes, there were many other Santa-related songs, too. There were songs to enslaved reindeers, like Rudolph, and even songs about kids catching their mothers kissing Santa; compared to these songs, all the ra-pa-pum-pum about drummer boys seemed old hat.

Now Snopes.com, which debunks urban myths, says Santa Claus wasn’t really a plot cooked up by Coca-Cola. That is to say, the Santa-fication of Christmas, the debunkers say, actually began with a poem. I don’t know about you, Pat, but part of my generation’s Christmas brainwashing included this poem-

 

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house??

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;????

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,??

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;????

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,??

While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;?

 

And you know the rest, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

The poem, by Clement Clarke Moore, dates to 1822 and in America, at least, Santa entered the big time. A happy, jolly, jiggly Santa became a fixture of American Christmases. Snopes.com says Moore gave us the eight reindeer, and St. Nicholas as a guy who broke into houses by means of the chimney. In 1863, the Santa Claus in red with white whiskers and in furs, began to be developed by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly. Nast gave us Santa as not just a deliverer, but maker, of toys. In an 1869 book, we learned Santa lived in the North Pole; by 1885, Santa began appearing on Christmas cards.

But it wasn’t until 1933 that Santa became a poster boy.

 

This prewar advertisement in Collier’s Magazine, shows the iconic Coca-Cola Santa, the brainchild of an artist named Haddon Sundblom, who illustrated the Coca-Cola Santa from the 1930s all the way to the 1960s.

 

Whether in wartime, such as this Santa from 1942,

Or in the immediate postwar years, such as this Santa from 1947,

Or this Santa from the bountiful 1950s, and finally, at the end of Sundblom’s long career,

 

This Santa from 1964,

Santa jingle-jangled the cash-registers for everything, besides Coke of course, there were toys…

 

Santa could sell so much Coke, he even got a sidekick to sell other softdrinks –this weird elfin like creature was officially known as… Sprite Boy!

 

And so it was, that the Coca-Colafication went all the way to Coca-Cola celebrating, last year, sixty-three years of it’s stamp on the Santa image:

 

An indelible imprint on what has indelibly come to be Christmas, for so many, including us: a time less about religion, and more about driving sales.

 

When we return, we’ll tackle, with an advertising expert, just why it is our Christmases are so Anglo-Saxon…

 

My view

 

We can take heart from those who have lived from far worse Christmases. They have made it, and many of them are still among us, to encourage us, and tell us that the love for peace, and the compassion that still moves us to care about those who suffer, which makes us cry out against abuses carried out in the name of authority,  the love and subdued joy to be with loved ones that fills all our hearts now, are the things that will carry us through.

We must all of us must cling to what we believe in -in what generations have suffered for- if goodness, the simple things that make our society worthwhile, are to endure. And, one day, triumph.

 

Merry Christmas from all of us at The Explainer.

 

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