For reasons that are quite apparent, this Christmas feels different.
Except for the mall areas festooned with all the fairy lights imaginable illuminating the exceptionally humid December nights, am I but one who does not feel Christmas in the air ... in the city? Am I the only one so seemingly unaffected by Joe Mari Chan's charming carols that have always lifted the most dour of spirits to get into the December mode?
Maybe it is because I have crossed that age when the fascination for Christmas came to an end. After a while, it becomes a tedious obligation --- a yearly ritual that is exhausting as well as expensive. But then everything is in one's frame of mind as to why you don your gay apparels and sing fa-la-la-la together with the maddening crowds.
Yes, it is the crowds who fill up malls, create even more havoc in Manila traffic and go on a food binge like there were no tomorrow. It is all these Christmas parties, family reunions and the chance to people who you have not seen, talked to or even forgotten who emerge from oblivion to provide either entertainment or sentiment.
What makes this all so exceptional in these parts is that Filipinos take their Christmases all so seriously. Mind boggling as it may seem to those unfamiliar with being Pinoy, to hear Jingle Bell Rock and White Christmas playing in the malls as early as October can be quite eery if not pure Twilight Zone. But that is how Filipinos are: we find every available excuse to celebrate. We make careers out of holidays and build out lives around them. This fiesta mentality must be one of our coping mechanisms that has become ingrained in our national character.
But, as I said, the Christmas of 2016 seems different. A friend of mine observed, "Bakit parang pilit na pilit? (Why does it look so forced?)" I still wanted the benefit of the doubt. I replied, "Baka tayo lang naman. (It may just be us.)"
Well, it has got nothing to do with the fact that there will be no giggly and excitable mobs filling up mall lobbies waiting for the first showing of yet another Vice Ganda or Vic Sotto movie on Christmas morning. But it has got everything to do with what is happening all around us ... and what we do not seem to feel because there is this apprehension of being contrived or just plain incomplete.
Maybe Christmas seems so different this year not only because there are no joyful displays of Yuletide happiness down the road of Tomas Morato, the restaurant center of the City of Stars. Whereas before there were delightful colors and a conflagration of all sorts of lights and decor strewn on the lamp posts and windows of the various commercial establishments, now the landscape is not only bare but sullen. Even the shops and restaurants look like they have been forced to putting up Christmas buntings that had seen better years before this season. It's the same old dilapidated and dusty synthetic garlands looking like dead green anacondas with token Christmas balls in order to impersonate merriment. They are the only signs of Yuletide celebration ... which still come across as more obligatory than sincere.
Yes, the malls may be teeming with people and an expedition in Divisoria can still be an experience to measure the wits of the Ultimate Survivor, but still there is something missing. There is something lacking this Christmas.
A local magazine bore a cover that declared 2016 as The Worst Year Ever.
2016 will certainly be remembered but maybe for all the wrong reasons. Even those whose eyes are fixed on the stars cannot possibly blame Mercury on Retrograde for a year. This is the year of Murphy's Law --- of uncanny surprises. And these surprises do not happen once but come in layers and layers of even more surprises. 2016 did not only introduce radical changes but radicalized the world's view of itself and seemingly redefined the parameters of decency.
What we used to think as good and proper no longer holds. This is the year of anything goes --- and it literally went everywhere. This is the year when brazenness and crassness were equated with authenticity and courage and truthfulness. This is the year when alliances were reassigned and political alignments looked like a game of musical chairs.
This the year when Syrian refugees could not find sanctuary to escape from the devastation of war in their homeland. This is the year when images of dead and mangled children become daily fare in the news so that after a while you are so terrified of becoming numbed.
2016 ends with such uncertainty.
World leaders have pushed the limits of diplomacy and are now threatening in their posture, dangerous in their eloquence. People bestowed with great power have become entitled, even reckless --- because they feel that this is what is demanded from them. Their fearlessness pushes the planet to the brink. When compassion is replaced by protectionism --- and when people say that they do not give a damn about others and still be proud of it, you know that you are screwed. Very, very screwed.
When nationalism is redefined as radicalism --- and racial discrimination is tacitly encouraged by sheer virtue of aspiring for national unity and greatness, you hear the Fuhrer giving his impassioned speech in front of Swastika-clad minions.
When listening and discussing have been replaced by tough speech and cowboy machismo then prepare yourself for Westworld, where leaders are gun crazy and just raring to pick a fight. And try very hard not to be scared.
Maybe this Christmas is so different because the world is on the brink of imploding ... while everybody is either mesmerized or appalled by all the grandstanding and bully rhetoric.
When days before Christmas a Russian ambassador is gunned down and caught in live television in Turkey... and a truck plows through innocent civilians shopping in a Christmas market in Berlin all in a matter of hours, then you realize how dangerous everything, everywhere has become. It is as if the world is so determined to self-destruct. It is as if everything is being put in place for another Big Bang that will not start life as we know it ... but demolish most of human existence.
Christmas is different this year because at the back of our minds we are afraid. We are so afraid that the world has gone completely crazy --- and that nobody listens, everybody just gives speeches and use braggadocio to convince the rest of the population that they are out to change the world.
There is just too much divisiveness, too much hate. And it is not only here. It is all over.
Yet deep inside you wish that even for a short while --- even for some fleeting moment for some days of the year --- Christmas can make us realize that we are all seeking the same thing. Our humanity. That regardless of all the confusion and fear that surrounds us in the here and now --- or the ambiguity of what is right from what is wrong --- that all these are really unimportant. Because all will come to pass --- and Christmas tells us the only thing we need to learn and to know: to value the unconditional love that saved us --- and will save us.
We all hope 2016 will be over --- and, despite all odds, 2017 will be better.
We all pray that all the violence, all the anger will dissipate --- and man will finally quiet down and learn to listen to one another once again. Christmas feels so different this year because we have allowed our fears to overpower our faith and spirit.
Maybe it is about time we reclaimed our humanity by simply turning our backs to all this negativity and bring back the true meaning of this one most important day of the year when a man born two thousand years ago told us a lesson we have yet to learn: to take care of each other. Only then can we reclaim the joy with the hope that we can still make a better world out of the mess we have created.