Christmas is bayanihan

by Jose Ma. Montelibano
Christmas is not just a day, not even just a season. For Filipinos, Christmas is also a cyclical reminder, a divine gift like the four seasons, to jolt us out of our patterns, from mute submission to aggressive confrontation, two sides of the same coin with everything else in between. I hope that the learning on our side will become faster and deeper so that we can truly enjoy Christmas. I read about the most recent annual statistics on Filipino optimism and, happily, it is on the up and up. No matter how depressed it has been in the many months prior, that optimism of Filipinos spike around Christmas. That is why we need to be reminded that optimism is possible and that it is possible as a steady attitude instead of just for a season.

Christmas is about giving, we are always told. And we know it to be true, whether we are Christians who source Christmas to the great giver, Jesus Christ, or simply as Filipinos, who source giving to a national culture grounded on bayanihan. Bayanihan is Christmas before the Spanish friars introduced religion to us. It was a way of life although our mental images of divinity may have been on different mystical characters. The essence of fraternity, community, and giving, however, have always been central to bayanihan. It is no wonder why much of the fundamentals of the Christian religion was, from the beginning, intuitively intimate with native values. All the more when Filipinos found instant and deep resonance with the mother-and-child relationship in Mary and Jesus and the Holy Family of three with Joseph.

I have yet to read about people other than Filipinos who celebrate Christmas as we do. Anyone who comes close must have a culture that also approximates bayanihan. And it is difficult to understand the relationship between Filipinos and Christmas beyond what is seen on the surface. Even there, though, even the surface, already signifies the deeper truth of Christmas to Filipinos. Christmas is a religious event. Moreover, and very important moreover, Christmas is a fiesta. To people who are not Filipino, the only thing not Filipino about fiesta is its Spanish name, its spelling. Do not be mislead by trying to research the Spanish colonization of our islands and natives, then coming to the conclusion that fiestas came from Spain. As in the devotions to the Mother-and-Child, the Holy Family, and Santo Nino, Filipinos are quite selective on what in the foreign religion they choose to adopt in their hearts and exemplify in their collective behavior. Additionally, we can include the Black Nazarene and the Holy Week celebrations – and see how the sacrificial aspect of love is so deeply rooted in Filipino culture.

I think it is less that Filipinos were Christianized than Christianity in the Philippines was Filipinized. The phenomenon of the overseas Filipino workers that started sometime in the 70s is almost 50 years old. We see the same pattern of Filipinos forced by circumstance adopting the stronger environment in which they find themselves. But as time goes on, we see how their environment is gradually being Filipinized. Filipinos may be adept at assimilation, but they always hold on to that part of their culture known as bayanihan.

Bayanihan has been defined in several ways. I do not think any definition is wrong, but that any definition will not be enough. Yes, it takes its root from the word bayan which means town or community, or now can be national in scope. In the past, though, bayanihan had not to experience nation yet the spirit of community where families belonged to and lived in active collective participation was very much in practice. Somewhere else, as referenced by the Bible, the early Christian communities were described as living together, sharing everything, and no one was in want. It does seem and feel like early Filipinos and early Christians had much in common.

It may be that Christmas has been overly Westernized, and that means overly commercialized. The West is fixated on the economic and naturally, leads in economics. The West has a long, intense tradition of warfare as well, and naturally leads in anything military. When power and wealth are put together, they make such a forceful combination that even religions are generally swayed by them. Power and wealth have ruled the world so absolutely that the spirit of competition is the primary driver of life. On the other hand, bayanihan and the early Christian communities were grounded on opposite priorities, communal in nature, sharing, and service in daily living.

It is not only Christmas that may have been overly Westernized, but it is also Filipino culture as well. The West has much to show as achievements because of their culture, and rightly so. They adapted to their environment and progressed as a result. But Filipinos adapting to Western culture, successful as it may be, means surrendering more of its own strengths. And the results have not been that favorable. The value system we copied has been enhanced with our support. Our own culture, however, has been badly damaged.

Our unique way of celebrating Christmas is a singular opportunity to give our bayanihan culture a big boost, another needed re-boot. We are not only reminded of what is native to us, but we are also encouraged by the joy of the season to live it ours as long as we can. Through the celebration of Christmas, we are experiencing what comes naturally to the Filipino spirit. If Christmas is not just a day, not just a season, then we can extend its spirit, or allow it to revive the bayanihan way of life for us. Filipinos cannot play catch-up on a sustained basis without burning out. We must have faith that what is native to us, that bayanihan is the way to go, for a future full of hope.

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