Christmas in the Philippines

[OPINION] Christmas 1942 and 2020

Tony La Viña
[OPINION] Christmas 1942 and 2020
This is the promise of Christmas. War ends. Injustice is not forever. Love wins.

Our experience with today’s pandemic can best be compared to the experience of our parents and/or our grandparents when World War 2 came to our islands in December 1942. That was when the Japanese invaded our islands.

Fr Roque Ferriols SJ, in his book, Sulyap sa Aking Pinanggalingan (Glimpses Into My Beginnings), as translated by my English teacher Dr Sol Reyes), published by Ateneo University Press in 2016, describes the first day of that invasion:

“At daytime, we saw how lovely Novaliches was in the Yuletide season. The sky was intensely blue and the poinsettia leaves were crimson red. But at noon, the Japanese planes burst out of the horizon. They sounded like the buzzing of the bees. And they flew over the house on their way to Manila. A little later, we heard the thud of bombs falling over the city.

The superiors thought of devising a camouflage to protect the house, and so we produced “paint” by combining the red clay of Novaliches and water. Some painted the exterior of the house, while others cut off branches and used them to cover the roof. The idea was to spare the building from the bombs. I was not sure if it helped any.

The Japanese forces had landed in Luzon, and we thought mistakenly, that Fil-American troops could put up a fight and stop them. But we proceeded, undeterred, with our preparations for Christmas . . . Rorate coeli desuper . . . noli timere . . . drop down dew, ye heavens . . . do not be afraid. This was our first ever Christmas with the Society of Jesus and no one could make us give up our hopeful anticipation.”

Ferriols also describes Christmas midnight Mass that year:

“Before midnight we awakened to the sound of Christmas carols. This was what the secondi (a second year novice) meant when he said that angels would sing at midnight. The bell rang as the group sang “Fall on your knees.” We rose from bed, knelt down, and kissed the floor, and stretched out our arms. We put on our clothes and proceeded to the chapel. It was pitch dark because lights were out during the war. But we felt the presence of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the Infant Jesus whose shining light we could feel in the darkness. We sang Flos de riodice dat and ended with the rousing Adeste Fidelis . . .”

After liberation

Fr Roque also writes about an SVD missionary priest in Lubang Island, Mindoro, Fr Benito Rixner. A Ferriols family friend, Fr Rixner used to visit their home. According to Fr Roque: “He was a simple priest, humble and charitable. He shared with us his experiences as a missionary. I remember that after each visit, and when he had returned to his mission, he always left us at peace with ourselves, a kind of silence that embraced us.”

Years later, after the liberation of Manila, Fr Roque writes about an encounter with Fr Rixner:

“Rizal Avenue attracted droves of people. The city had awakened, and was buzzing with activities; business was flourishing, more shops and stores were catering to the needs of their customers on those days. The place was teeming with people, greeting each other when seeing each other accidentally, and one would hear various individuals saying, “You’re alive. Thank God!’ I was a Young Jesuit about to finish my juniorate. I was whiling away my time, looking at people walking down Rizal Avenue. In an instant, I saw a German priest that I have not seen in a long while and had not been part of my memory. A light seemed to shine on me, “Fr Rixner!” “Roque!” We shook each other’s hands and we were practically dancing on Rizal Avenue. When I returned home, and until now that I am writing this, I could still savor the peace and the silence that he had always left me.”

Jewels of a pauper

In 1946, as the country and especially Manila was on its knees, another Jesuit, a teacher actually of Ferriols, the famous Fr Horacio de la Costa SJ, wrote the “Jewels of the Pauper.” For a contemporary rendition of what became a classic recitation piece in many Jesuit and Catholic schools, I recommend the lovely audio version performed by Candy Quimpo Gourlay, a London-based Filipina children’s book writer.

As I told my Manila Observatory colleagues, reminding them of how the war devastated  our beloved institution that was the first scientific institution of its kind in the Philippines and our part of the world, De La Costa’s words are timeless:

“But poor as we are, we yet have something. This pauper among the nations of the earth hides two jewels in her rags. One of them is our music. We are sundered one from another by eighty-seven dialects; we are one people when we sing. The kundimans of Bulacan awaken an answering chord of lutes of Leyte. Somewhere in the rugged north, a peasant woman croons her child to sleep; and the Visayan listening remembers the crane fields of his childhood, and his mother singing the self-made song.

We are again one people when we pray. This is our other treasure; our Faith. It gives somehow, to our little uneventful days, a kind of splendor; as though they had been touched by a king. And did you ever notice how they are always mingling, our religion and our music? All the basic rite of human life – the harvest and the seedtime, the wedding, birth and death – are among us drenched with the fragrance and the coolness of music.

These are the bonds that bind us together; these are the souls that make us one. And as long as there remains in these islands one mother to sing Nena’s lullaby, one boat to put out to sea with the immemorial rowing song, one priest to stand at the altar and offer God to God, the nation may be conquered, trampled upon, enslaved, but it cannot perish. Like the sun that dies every evening it will rise again from the dead.”

The promise of Christmas

Music and faith are certainly jewels of our people up to today. But there are gems too: Our sense of humor continues to lift up our spirits. Our families and friendships are a big consolation. Our indigenous peoples and young people, whose courage I have seen up close in these times, for sure gives us hope.

Unfortunately, many of our leaders continue to fail us with incompetence (for example, the failure to plan properly a strong vaccination program) and impunity (the killings in Tarlac as its latest manifestation) as defining characteristics of the current administration. But this will not last.

That is the promise of Christmas. War ends. Injustice is not forever. Love wins.

I truly believe in the promise of the prophet Isaiah: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.”

That is why we sing this week: “O come, O come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here, Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel, Shall come to thee, O Israel.” –

Tony La Viña teaches law and is former dean of the Ateneo School of Government. He has a website and is on Facebook: deantonylavs and Twitter: @tonylavs.