Monday, December 25, 2006

the most wonderful time of year.

When September 1 officially made it to the calendar earlier this year, one of my classmates sent me a message bearing the words:

“Merry Christmas!”

At first, this merited a bewildered look: Knowing that the world celebrates Christmas at more or less the same date with the Philippines being of no exception, I surmised that somehow he could have been pushed over the edge by a fit of overexcitement, or has lost track of the time, or both. Little did I know that like him, millions of people have also marked the start of the much-anticipated hype, the great countdown.

One doesn’t easily forget that in a country where the mere mention of “Christmas” generates endless connotations, the celebration starts with the onset of the “-ber” months. And that’s a feat no other special holiday or occasion can ever beat. You hear Christmas carols being played on the radio even before petitions for souls of the departed are requested, and you see shoppers juxtaposing lists of lanterns and decors with Halloween costumes. Even the perennial Scrooges of our times start to show a potential for niceties once the mood turns up on sleigh rides and winter wonderlands. For most people I know, Christmas is a festival of epic proportions, no doubt; and it’s supposed to get bigger and grander every year.

I’ve been observing quite the contrary, though. As much as it is hard to admit, signs of the season have become harder to come by year after year. Slick traces remain of the once ostentatious interplay of lights and trees, and the melody of Christmas carols fail to reach their typical ubiquitous state. Even the so-called materialism, the superficiality moralists and clergy are forever going against, isn’t working out as well as expected. Storeowners groan of aching losses as the lure of brisk December sales loses its usual touch, with shoppers carefully sticking to a tightly-screwed budget. On top of these, one can’t help but contract a portion of the lingering dreariness. Or if feeling gloomy deep down isn’t bad enough, you hear people say, “It’s not like being Christmas”, or “I don’t feel Christmassy at all”.

The year 2006 is hard hit especially. If you have a bunch of super-typhoons perpetually striking various parts of the archipelago (and leaving some areas dreadfully battered) and tragically amplified by a series of volcanic activities and socio-political crises, you also have people persistently harboring misgivings on whether the whole Christmas thing is such a good idea after all. Is 365 days of unwanted misfortune really a valid excuse to keep the Yuletide spirit at the sidelines for a while?

Well here’s the catch: The first Christmas wasn’t perfect either. As our parish priest explained during his homily on Christmas Eve, “the first Noel came at a time when the world was in turmoil, marked by wars and general unrest. It is precisely this imperfection, the presence of a void in people’s hearts that made the arrival of a Savior very timely.” Come to think of it, what need would there be for a Messiah when everything is in place, when the world is so engrossed in its flawlessness?

It is when we realize that something is missing, and duly acknowledge such a fact, that we begin to discover what Christmas is truly about. I have classmates whose homes are right smack in the so-called typhoon hot spots, and though at present electricity continues to be a thing of the not-so-distant past, this didn’t stop them from being part of the most wonderful time of year. I guess far more important than having the physical means to eat, drink and make merry is to possess the right spirit for it.

Which is why I prefer to celebrate Christmas the way it should be – simple and with the ones you love. We had the traditional Noche Buena and gift exchange before attending the highlighted midnight mass, finally capping the night with a short prayer. And it just occurred to me that sometimes, the best way to feel blessed is to believe that right here, right now, in our midst is the most wonderful time of year, no less.

Friday, December 22, 2006

rediscovering mornings.

I never thought I would come to enjoy mornings again.

To think this statement would have to come from someone who was hands down a morning person as a child – strictly made to stick to a bed-by-8-up-by-6 regimen tailor-fit for school. Back then, I worshipped every ritual of the morning kind to a tee: prompt early breakfasts, weekend morning walks in the park and my tanning doses of Vitamin D (Like any credulous youngster, I unwittingly believed that the sun directly gives you your much-needed supply of Vitamin D.) Unfortunately, just as one progresses in age and takes on more responsibilities, academic or otherwise, so the duration of wakefulness inevitably strays farther and farther into the night.

In my case, the load from my studies somehow forces me to become the unintended nocturnal creature that I am now. The compulsive crammer in me suggests wrapping up everything in the dark as an assurance of both quality dozing time thereafter and saving grace the next day. It was an unhealthy habit that made me wince at every mention of the simplistic aphorism “Asleep by 9, awake by 5, and you’ll live to 99” and elicited countless urgings of “Go to bed” from my mom, even rightfully earning me the moniker “night owl” from her. Other than these, however, that’s the way the cookie crumbles. My mind is somehow set to activate its riggings the moment sundown takes place and the world’s flurry diminishes to inactivity.

And, oh – the scourge of writing! I definitely write better in the night; it’s when everything else is in deep slumber that gushing waves of ideas find their way in undisturbed. Lying awake in bed, I could whip up a concoction of myriad thoughts and string them together to make a swell story – or an essay – and presto, one finished article for posterity’s sake. The itch could prove way too overpowering to ignore.

Not to say that there are no pitfalls here, of course. The downside is that you wake up the following day slouchy and scowling (that’s why I detest 7am classes), making you disregard the beauty of the whole morning bit. Moreover, life gets to be a bit shorter, sometimes. There are instances when I get horrified at the thought that my mornings have become little more than mere extra time slots to stretch, take a bath and get dressed just in time to see the clock chime the hour of noon. Almost like magic, half the day is gone before you know it. It’s as if someone wound an hourglass and made it accelerate to twice, even thrice, its speed.

Well, until Simbang Gabi season came along and broke this misconception once and for all.

My dad – who completed all nine dawn masses for the first time – is the perfect person to attest to the wonders of being an early bird. “It leaves you feeling fresh,” he says, and that’s something I never thought my insomniac-of-a-father can ever declare, a good number of times at that. Upon finishing mass, he tucks in a few hours’ worth of shut-eye and then leaves for work, but all the same it’s working out wonders for his health and well-being.

The freshness is certainly a far cry from the sticky grogginess of waking up just in time for lunch. It’s a freshness emanating from the innocent tranquility of early morn, a stillness that gradually gives way to the increasing hustle and bustle of day. The cool morning breeze simmers with the rising of the sun into warm daytime puffs of air, as everything comes to life: from the drone of a single motorcycle to the noisy honking of passenger jeeps, the growing number of pedestrians emerging from street corners, and the brisk unlocking of shops opening up for another day. Nature too, awakens and joins the heralding of a new 24-hour epoch, dew-soaked grass all around.

But the best surprise in itself would have to be the fact that time is finally at the palm of your hand. I call it an emancipation from a (day) of haste breeding waste. You can do a lot of things, and you can do them nice and slow at the same time. Returning from dawn mass one time, we made several stopovers on the way and still reached home before 6 am. I fooled around, ate breakfast at a leisurely pace and sang Christmas carols and it wasn’t even 7 am! I joked with my siblings, leafed through some magazines and watched some shows and my watch didn’t even read 8! Plus, I could have a nap if I wanted and it would still be only 9 or 10 am!

Credit this to the disparity of life in the big city and in the smaller, more rustic provincial capital. Bright lights, big city means neon glowing 24/7; in the province, it’s a different story. Dusk translates to evening approaching, and evening translates to closed stores, few people walking down the streets, and everyone shuttling home to retire. Whereas staying up and waking up late in the metropolis would be perfectly fine, my body clock automatically shifts to an earlier routine upon reaching the province leaving me no choice but to comply – else there would be disastrous effects.

Nevertheless, I still enjoy the quiet of the night. Once in a while, I’d sneak down for some quick surfing before hitting the covers, or for some minutes of late night TV, perhaps not too late for my own good. I still despise waking up at the crack of dawn, and if given the choice would rather have a few more zzz’s with sunlight streaming through the windows. But rediscovering the joys of morning – that I cannot deny saying what a superb feeling it truly was.