Joy remains

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - December 22, 2020 - 12:00am

For most Filipinos, Christmas is our favorite time of the year. We have become well known around the world for the love we have for the celebrations which surround the birth of Christ, and how early we begin the celebrations here. It is a common enough joke to have the “Ber Months” – ending in December but beginning all the way in September – to be synonymous with the Christmas season, with Christmas songs and carols blaring from the speakers in shopping centers as soon as August ends.

But as with many other things this year, this Christmas is very different. No Christmas bazaars or office parties. No children taking pictures with mall-resident Santas. No vast crowds in a church for Simbang Gabi, or singers caroling from door to door.

That Christmas cannot and should not be impervious to the changes necessary to keep people safe is another blow to the mental health of many of us. But while we cannot celebrate Christmas the way we usually do, it is important that we do not take this to mean that we should not celebrate – whether it be Christmas or something else. Celebrations serve a purpose and doing so towards the end of the year has been important even before December 25th became associated with the birth of Jesus.

In fact, early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus in the first few centuries following his death (or at least we’ve yet to find records of anything so early.) The first recorded mention of the birth of Jesus being an annual celebration set in December is found in the Chronograph of 354 (or the Philocalian Calendar). For most early Christians, it was likely the date of death – particularly of martyrs – that was deemed to be the significant date and high-ranking members of the church were in fact opposed to the very idea of celebrating birth days. As for setting the date for Dec. 25, there are many theories, but most agree that the date was chosen for symbolic rather than historical purposes (there are very few hints in the New Testament about the exact day or even season of Jesus’ birth).

The period around Dec. 25 has always been significant for much of the world, because it would be around then that midwinter or winter solstice celebrations would be held. Many of the customs that have coalesced around Christmas are similar to those pre-Christian celebrations: the lights, the music, the eating, the gathering together with family and friends, even the decorations made from greenery. Midwinter celebrations were important in many northern and southern cultures because they allowed people to cope with the hardships and boredom brought about by winter. It gave people something to look forward to and prepare for in the first half, and it would mark the hallway point that let people know that spring was that much nearer.

Of course, here in the Philippines we don’t have winter, but we do know a thing or two about dealing with hardships. Finding some reason for joy in the midst of it all is an important part of that. Resilience is not a narrative that should be used to excuse maintaining a flawed status quo, but it is still a virtue better possessed than not. We all need to be able to roll with the punches, to get back up after we take a fall and an important part of that is having something to look forward to. That was the purpose midwinter celebrations traditionally served, and for many of us that is what Christmas is.

COVID has not cancelled Christmas. We may not be able to celebrate in the usual ways, but we can still celebrate. It’s important that we still find  ways to celebrate. Even if we cannot physically get together, even if we are confined to our homes – if we search for the essence of what makes Christmas a joy for us, we can adapt.

Meeting up online has become commonplace during the pandemic, but it’s not something everyone has the capacity to do. Yet if all that’s standing in the way is, say, the reluctance of an older family member to engage with what they see as complicated technology, a holiday virtual reunion could be just the motivation for them to learn, so long as they have patient and willing teachers. It will benefit them as well in the long run to be able to have another means of interacting with others, and getting over the initial intimidation of the unfamiliar can be a big help.

If it’s the gift giving that makes you happy, there are ways to do that remotely as well. Or find a way to give to the less fortunate who are near to you – your barangays or local governments could find use for any generous donations – or to those who need it the most. There is no shortage of that: those who suffered from the most recent storms are still in need of help even if their plight no longer dominates headlines. And our frontliners are continuing their months-long struggle to keep the rest of us safe from COVID.

There are also some traditions that simply don’t need to change – if you enjoy decorating your homes festively, there’s no reason why you can’t continue to do so. If you have a traditional meal you enjoy making for your family, it’s likely still very possible you can prepare it for them. But in a time when so many things are changing, you can also take the opportunity to make changes for the better. Not every old tradition was good or worth keeping, and now is the perfect time to make a change, to make new traditions with those you care about that reflect your own desires, your own values and your own dreams.

Christmas for Christians is about promises kept, about salvation and hope. Even for non-Christians, the season of Christmas has become one of joy and sharing.

In this most difficult of years, this longest of winters, we need those things more than ever. From the bottom of my heart, to all of you: may you and yours find something to celebrate this December. Merry Christmas!

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