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Joyful new year

/ 12:10 AM January 04, 2017

Have you noticed that in English we go “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” while in Filipino it is “Maligayang Pasko at Manigong Bagong Taon”?  Our choice seems to be for merriment during a long Christmas (which in the Philippines begins in September and runs throughout December), followed by wishes for a prosperous new year, even if the Christmas festivities have left us broke.

This year (2016 going 2017), I noticed how at family reunions and get-togethers with friends, the season’s cheer has been somewhat dampened by recent political events, particularly the war on drugs.  Parents with younger children seem most affected. There’s a gut concern: Will my child be caught in the crossfire, described by the cold words “collateral damage”?  How do we explain to the kids what’s going on? We raise our children to fear drugs, to think of drugs as evil, so are the killings to be justified as a war on evil?

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Almost as if to compensate for the lingering apprehensions, there’s been extra effort to continue to make Christmas happy, merry. Christmas, after all, has been mainly for children, all of us having pleasant memories of our own childhood Christmases, and a determination to have our own children grow up with even happier memories.

Double, triple happiness

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I thought of writing about our holiday greetings when I noticed that one of the gifts delivered to my parents’ home had the Chinese character for double happiness. It’s a character associated with weddings but is sometimes used as well for holiday greetings and gifts.

I’ve always liked the word because it comes through as a call to appreciate an abundance of happiness. That seemed even more appropriate for this year’s holidays, where the climate actually matched our mood: cloudy with occasional rains, making us better appreciate the sunlight bringing double, triple happiness.

The Mandarin pronunciation of the happiness word I’ve been referring to is si (spelled out in Chinese Romanization as xi) and is part of the greetings for auspicious occasions: gong xi, gong xi (and in Hokkien, the language of most local Chinese, hi as in giong hi, giong hi).

Many (but not all, I must emphasize) Chinese characters have meanings in the way they’re written. I looked up the etymology (source) of the word xi. How I wish I could write it out in my column but do google “Chinese word xi happiness” and you should find the character. Look at it and you’ll see that the top part looks like a drum on a pedestal. The lower part is a square, which is the character for the mouth.  And between the two characters is a horizontal line with two apostrophes which, it turns out, are supposed to depict feathers.

Get the picture now?  The Chinese xi is represented by drumming and probably the loud calls that go with the drumming. The feathers add to the festive ambience; I thought of dancing.

Xi is happy, and merry, so appropriate for our holiday season, but I also thought that all these terms represent fleeting feelings.  We’re exuberant and ebullient, but the feelings pass too quickly. After the firecrackers and the karaoke and the laughter, and the tagay (toasting)… a forlorn silence.

Then I remembered another Chinese greeting, xin nian kuai le, which is also “happy new year” but the key word is le, different from xi.  The character for le is the same for both happiness and music. Returning to the internet to look for discussions of le, I found a most insightful article in Acta Psychologica Sinica, jointly authored by Zeng Hong, a professor of medicine, and Guo Siping, a professor of education.

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The authors, having reviewed concepts of happiness in Confucian, Daoist (Taoist) and Buddhist philosophy, point out that le and happiness are much less about individual emotions than a subjective wellbeing brought about in social contexts of doing good for society (Confucian and Buddhist) and in appreciating nature and life (in Daoism).

‘Ginhawa’

There’s much more to the article, but I thought the notion of happiness as subjective wellbeing was the most important part.  In Filipino, we would be talking about ginhawa, which combines happiness with a sense of wellbeing, of peacefulness and security.  At its simplest, it’s feeling good, not as a passing “Merry Christmas” outburst, but as something that wells up within our hearts, from being with people we love.

For fellow parents who fretted with me during the reunions, I’d remind them to think of the joy that came after we got home, after the excitement of unwrapping gifts and, in one of my children’s case, the panic from misplacing the angpao (or red envelopes with money).  I asked my son later if he could share his angpao “loot” (there were several envelopes) with his siblings who got less. This son always gets the most angpao because he’s, well, such a happy kid in the sense of xi, a drummer boy who doesn’t need drums. He obliged, no questions asked.

At the end of a very long day, ginhawa comes with seeing the children tucked safely in bed,  a peaceful silence and memories of generosity and shared gifts generating a longer-lasting sense of joyfulness.

I’m not suggesting we should start greeting people “maginhawang bagong taon.”  I think manigong is fine, usually translated as “prosperous” but which has a broader meaning of something favorable.  Jose Villa Panganiban in his Diksyunaryo Tesauro gives an example of the use of manigo as the first sale of a store, something that augurs good fortune.

Manigong has a good fit with the biblical description of the fruits of generosity: “Give and it will be given to you.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over will be poured into your lap” (Luke 6:38).

Compassion is essential to ginhawa, as is generosity for manigong, and discussing those connections will make it that much easier to explain what’s wrong with the war on drugs and with so much else that is going on in our beleaguered nation.

May I wish you all generosity and joy for 2017 and that it be, borrowing again from Luke 6:38, this time using the much catchier Filipino translation, siksik, liglig, umaapaw.

mtan@inquirer.com.ph

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