That Christmas Spirit

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Food and fireworks, bright lights and caroling, Christmas has arrived. The other night, I was invited to a birthday dinner in a seafood restaurant located in the reclamation area near Mall of Asia. The celebrant was a Fil-Am, so happy to be spending her birthday here after being abroad for decades. I believe the steamed crabs, shrimps, and fish, clams and squid did not come cheap, but I knew these would have cost much more in New Jersey where she now lived.

While we were having dinner, we heard fireworks and noisy caroling – including drumbeats usually heard during Chinese New Year celebrations. It was simply impossible not to notice the festive atmosphere. Nothing can contain the celebratory spirit of Christmas, nothing. When the attitude of Filipinos is measured by all types of surveys, it will show a spike of optimism at this time every year.

Ten years ago, I joined street protests to show my dissatisfaction with the sitting president. What started out strongly in the streets in October 2000 became a weak effort when the focus shifted to an impeachment trial. Leaders of various sectoral groups decided to bring back the action to the streets instead of people watching television. A do-or-die rally in Edsa was then planned.

Being relatively new then in the parliament of the streets, it shocked me when the leaders of various groups would keep their options open only up to early December or wait it out until January. They were of one unanimous opinion that the Filipino would not support an aggressive confrontation when it is Christmas time
. As it turned out, life itself arranged for a January revolt by the people and the withdrawal of the military support for the president – but only after Christmas.

The spirit of caring and sharing reigns supreme throughout the Christmas season. Somehow, even the most greedy in Philippine society take a short rest and allow their generosity to dominate their behavior. And at the other end, the poorest among us get a reprieve from the collective apathy that perpetuates their poverty. During Christmas, the poor become beneficiaries of more bleeding hearts who find the motivation to think of them and actually share more of their resources. While business has been using Christmas to boost its sales rather than boost its spirituality, the buying and giving of gifts do foster the spirit of caring and sharing.

The power of the Christmas spirit shows us the way to address poverty. Year after year, one season gives by its example a clear pathway to begin and win a war against greed and apathy – the cause of poverty and how it stays in control. Yet, Christmas is relegated to simply being spiritual or religious; its unique and awesome power to transform the negative to the positive, greed to generosity, and apathy to empathy should alert the technocrats or politicians of a proven way to spread the wealth and bring the good news to rich and poor.

After all, how does government and society in general believe poverty will be effectively addressed? The standard belief is to create more businesses and, thus, more jobs. More jobs means more income, and more income will take poverty out of the lives of the poor. It is the famous “trickle-down” principle that had dominated the world all throughout recorded human history. Many miss the fact that the first countries to develop had a history of war, thousands of years of fighting, of killing and dying.

What, then, is the effect of sustained warfare to those who are consistently engaged in it? First, aggression is accepted as the path to progress. Two, a solid army wins while a divided force loses. Third, violence is rewarded when it wins, and punished when it brings only defeat. Fourth, the economy was based on war more than anything else. And, maybe, the most important of all, war pushed their participants to urgently develop technology as their lives depended on it – literally.

How did the West rise to power, then to material progress? War was the center of all the effort. Fortunes rose and fell because of war, fortunes of countries, fortunes of men and women. When Europeans could not anymore conquer more territory in their continent without paying too steep a price, they went around the world. Their aggressive attitude, their superior technology and vast experience made the least prepared easy victims of colonialism.

Push time hundreds of years later to today. The arena of war has been brought to the market, and only those who have the edge for warfare are the ones who insist on the principle of a market-driven economy, of market forces to play freely. In other words, the developed countries want to mirror conditions which allow them to use and abuse their strengths against the weaknesses of countries and people who have not been as conditioned by a culture of war.

If Filipinos have not evolved mainly through war, then Filipinos cannot win as a key player in warfare. We do not have the stomach for it, not because we are cowards, but because our strengths lie elsewhere. Because Filipinos evolved through their creativity, spirituality and the exercise of personal relations, we will excel when we create, when we serve, when we entertain, when we pray and when we engage in bayanihan. Too bad that the pace and tone of the world are dominated by countries with a strong war culture and history. In that context, Filipinos can excel only in serving the powerful and the aggressive.

Christmas is a big break, a vacation from warfare and a reconnection to our native strengths. Christmas allows us to be kind, to be prayerful, to be generous, to be forgiving. Religion did not bring Christmas to Filipinos; it simply discovered a people who were already thriving in the spirit of caring and sharing. It was as though the spirit we know as Christ came way ahead of religion and was lodged deep in the hearts of our ancestors.

As we celebrate in the next few weeks, let us carry the best of ourselves and share this to others. I pray only that what lifts our spirit for a short moment will finally convince us and our leaders that it is the best way for change and progress.

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