by Ken Fuller writing in the Philippines Daily Tribune
On my first visit to the Philippines (November 1989-January 1990), the most striking impression was of the sheer cultural incongruity. Given the title of this column, you can probably guess what’s coming.
I can no longer recall whether my jaw dropped when I stepped inside Bohol Quality supermarket, but it probably did, as my ears were assailed by Christmas songs about snow and reindeer and I noticed that the assistants all wore red and white bobble hats, suggesting that they might be Santa’s little helpers. I made the mistake of grinning foolishly at one or two assistants, expecting that they might share my incredulity that people in a tropical climate should be asked by their employer to take part in such a ridiculous pretense.
Needless to say, they had no idea why I was grinning at them. They possibly suspected that I was deranged or that, as a foreigner (there were very few of us in Bohol at that time), I was simply overawed by this display of “Philippine culture.”
My heart, dear reader, sank as I realized that the minds of Filipinos had been captured and that the vast majority were completely unaware of the fact. I felt like a character in a 1950s science fiction film (Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, say) who begins to panic as it dawns on him that all about him have been taken over by aliens.
The aliens in question, of course, came not from outer space but from the USA. It is true, of course, that the Spanish, having imposed Christianity upon their Asian colony, were also responsible for introducing the celebration of Christmas (although Christianity actually appropriated a pagan midwinter festival in northern Europe for its own purposes). But the tawdry commercialization of the celebration — here and elsewhere — is American in origin.
By the end of the 1920s, the commercialization process was well underway in the Philippines, as can be seen from a piece entitled “Westernization/Americanization of Philippine Christmas Gift-Giving” at naquem.blogspot.com. This takes a look at the December 1929 edition of the Philippine Magazine, paying particular attention to its advertisements.
We see that the Philippine Education Company Inc. on Escolta considered itself the “Doll Headquarters” of the Philippines. PECO, as it was known, took out separate advertisements for a wide range of “Outstanding Books For X’mas 1929,” a selection of shell-art and, of course, Christmas cards.
A few doors away, C. Alkan Inc. advertised golf equipment for men, phonographs and tennis racquets for women, and various sporting items for children, as “Gifts That Give Health and Joy” for Christmas (although whether the Daisy air rifle recommended for children could be so considered is doubtful).
Meralco, then more than a mere provider of electricity, offered a variety of electrical “Gifts That Last.” La Estrella enticed readers to consider its range of jewelry. Then there was the unimaginatively-named Hike Shoe Company, Kodak and Agfa. Such advertisements, the piece points out, were aimed at the US community and Filipinos who “comprised the educated and well-off, the new middle class and the old rich.”
“By the 1930s,” it continues, “Christmas was already party time for American business in the Philippines… In due time… the frenzy for buying (and expecting) gifts spread to all social classes.” While correct enough, this makes it sound like a contagious disease (which to some extent it is), glossing over the aggressive salesmanship, particularly that using the broadcast media, on the one hand urging the public to buy but on the other ensuring that, given economic realities, many children would experience not “health and joy” but disappointment.
The American Christmas songs heard on the radio and in shopping malls are not always what they seem. For example, “Jingle Bells” which, dating from 1857, is one of the oldest, was originally not a Christmas song at all, as it was written for the US Thanksgiving holiday. “Winter Wonderland,” on the other hand, is the genuine article, having been composed in 1934 by Dick Smith who, under treatment for tuberculosis in a Pennsylvania sanatorium, was inspired by the sight of a snow-covered park.
By the time we get to “White Christmas” in 1940 (or thereabouts), Irving Berlin could hardly rely on what he saw outside his window for inspiration, as this all-time best-seller (over 100 million copies of the various recordings have been sold worldwide) was written either in La Quinta, California or at the Biltmore in Arizona.
The imagination also had to be exercised with such Christmas standards as “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” as these were first recorded by cowboy singing star Gene Autry. The first of these was composed by Autry after he acted as Grand Marshal for Hollywood’s Santa Clause Lane Parade (later called the Hollywood Christmas Parade) in 1946. “Rudolph” was his big hit (his biggest ever, in fact) of 1949 which, accompanied by the Cass County Boys, he followed with “Frosty” the following year.
There is, of course, no snow in Hollywood, and the celebration of Christmas must be just as surreal there as it is in the Philippines. There is a reference to its Christmas parade circa the late 1920s in Deborah Martinson’s biography of New Orleans-born playwright and screenwriter Lillian Hellman.
The parade, says Martinson, featured “a cornflake snowstorm shot into the street by an airplane propeller mounted on a truck.” Lamp-posts were “draped in cotton batting and heavy glass icicles,” cactus was “adorned with colored lights,” and each of the metal Christmas trees lining the boulevards weighed 750 pounds. “Even the eccentricities of New Orleans,” Martinson says of Hellman, “had not prepared her for Hollywood.”
There is surely a possibility that the commercialized Philippine Christmas, rather than merely arising from US influence, was directly imported from Hollywood, where artificiality is so often mistaken for — and sometimes promoted as — reality.
Ken Fuller is a former British public transport workers leader now resident in the Philippines