Carol Composers — And Thieves

by Juan L. Mercado

The belen or Nativity crib, Christmas tree and parols are up at our home before First Sunday of Advent today. More kids are now belting  out off-key-carols at our door.

The local charity sent a note they’d like to “carol for a cause”, namely nutrition programs. “What carols do you want to hear,” the wife asks the grand kids. “O Holy Night,”  Kristin and Kathie chorus.  Also,  “Kasadya Ning Takna-a.

The later is the carol, composed by the late Vicente D. Rubi for the 1933 Cebu Carnival. Mariano Vestil scribbled the lyrics. Kasadya (“How Joyous Is this Season.”) won hands down. It was hijacked by a Manila recording company in  1937, without credit and composition,  as today’s  “Ang Pasko ay Sumapit.

Carols are about a season that gives us – to lift a line from the blasé New Yorker Magazine — “an array of luminous images that hint at all manner of annunciations”.

Like other kids, my grand-daughters sense this truth. Their eyes sparkle when they don white gown and angel wings for school Christmas programs. “We kneel, Lola,” Kristrin explains. When? The wife asks. “When we sing: ‘Fall on your knees. O, hear the angel voices.”

The wife and I will long be gone when Kristin and Kathie enter college. By then, they’ll have heard their childhood insight repeated by Hamlet, shivering on a dank Danish castle rampart: “That season comes wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated./The bird of dawning singeth all night long/ So hallow’d and so gracious is the Time.”

Some of  these songs go back, we’re told, to the 13th century. And the old favorites endure: “Adeste Fildelis”, “Silent Night” and others.

But whatever happened to those lilting Spanish carols like “Nacio, Nacio Pastores”? Grey-haired “oldies” like us wonder. Today, an  army of kids, besiege godparents singing: “Mano Po Ninong, Mano Po Ninang”— and Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit.

This country boasts of the longest celebration of Christmas.  “It remains supreme irony that not the slightest effort has been made to attribute the beloved carol Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit to its author: Vicente D. Rubi”  and  Mariano  Vestil  of Cebu”,  Manila Bulletin  columnist Jullie Yap Daza  writes every Advent.

A Manila-based record company, however, hijacked Rubi and Vestil’s carol for P150.  Some even tried to con a National Artist award for transposing the Visayan dagon into Tagalog.  That flies in the face of Christmas. But it’s par for the course in a country where an “elite of thieves” govern.

And those who crassly exploited Rubi and Vestil have kindred spirits here: in Maguindanao killers, the cartel that clamped an onerous levy on coconut farmers, loggers who trigger today’s flash floods to Supreme Court justices who flipflop to coddle a president who appointed them.

“Nong Inting” became an impoverished widower. Until his death in 1980, he’d shuffle to his gates and teach startled carolers — oftentimes kids banging bottle-cap tambourines – how to sing his dayegon.

And in 2004, lyricist Vestil went to his grave, bereft of benefits and recognition other than an inside-page-below-the-fold newspaper obituary. Tiene cara de hambre, the orphan tells the Crucified in the movie classic: “Marcelino, Pan Y Vino”.

“Christmas is the only time I know of, in the long calendar year, when men and women seem, by one consent, to open their shut-up hearts freely,”  Charles Dickens  wrote. “(We must see people below us as if they were really fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.)”

As in Dicken’s time, our social order is one where jewels, luxury gas-guzzlers and bank accounts, padded by graft, gauge self-worth. So, these packets are nothing to those who dump overpriced second hand helicopters on government, parade bogus World War II medals or maintain Leichtenstein bank accounts and cream off coco levies. Ask Imelda or Danding.

Christmas is not about tinsel, red-nosed reindeers, even shattered diets.  It is about a Child who healed the sick, fed the hungry, showed compassion, taught that one should lay down his life for friends — and did so. He also gave answers to basic questions that confront ordinary mortals like us: pain, suffering, loss and death.”

“The Bethlehem story, in Luke’s Gospel, gives us an ‘array of luminous images’, the theologian Catalino Arevalo SJ writes in his book: “They Shall Call Him Emmanuel”. (We see) “the night sky alight with bright angels, simple shepherds startled from sleep, magi. It is a happening, above all, for the deepest heart.

“Christmas is not, first of all, a revelation for the intelligence.  It is looking at a Son who was born for us, who would die for us, because we mattered to him, because we are infinitely cherished, infinitely loved. At the crib, the first task is to look, and looking to adore.

Venite adoremus, the old Latin carol says. Come let us adore him”. “ And the 1861 (?) carol says of the little town of Bethelhem: The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight.

Indeed, the unique grace of Christmas is that both carol writer and carol thief can say, together with  kings and shepherds: “Let us go to Bethlehem and see what the Lord has made known to us.”


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