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‘Ber’ in PH and US

/ 05:04 AM September 05, 2018

Last Saturday I had to pick up some groceries. It was around 7 in the morning, so I was still feeling I could have used a bit more sleep. But, as soon as I walked into the grocery, I perked up hearing the music. I realized it was September 1, and the grocery wasn’t about to lose a day of the “ber” months; it was now playing Christmas carols.

We boast of having the longest Christmas in the world, coinciding with this ber season. Ber as in remember, courtesy of the almost nonstop carols.

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I used to find the music assaulting, too loud and too commercial in its intent, because we know all too well that the music is meant to get us to begin Christmas shopping.

But then, we know, too, that even if the call to shop begins so early, we still end up fighting huge crowds in December—everyone doing their last-minute Christmas shopping. So I think there’s more to all this than commercialism.

All cultures have ways of marking a year coming to an end, and do this during the last month. If businesses do their inventories, we take stock of our lives, ending up thankful for the good and mourning the not-so-good, including loved ones who have left us. The ber months are like coffee or, maybe, more appropriately, more like chocolate, allowing us moments that link past, present and future.

I wonder if our long ber season is proportionate to the hard lives we have as Filipinos, a way of rationalizing that there’s light at the end of the dark tunnel that the year has been. The ber season offers many little joys that come together to comfort us and to gear us up with new hopes and aspirations.

The popular Christmas carols are lively, like ad jingles. Terribly sticky tunes, they replay themselves in endless loops in our minds, numbing us to life’s many trials and tribulations (even as their stickiness becomes torment). With children, the tunes seem to switch something in their brains to make them dance. Sometimes, the family dogs get into the act, too, warming our hearts and making us smile.

That weekend, I was following the memorial services and funeral of US senator John McCain, and was fascinated by the cultural and political scripts. In some ways, it was a kind of ber activity, too, with Americans needing to feel there was hope for a nation embattled by (and I’m borrowing phrases from various eulogies) cheap rhetoric, the petty and the mean—all references, without naming him, to the incumbent US president.

There were many touching scenes, especially at the funeral service, which had been planned out by McCain himself as he accepted he would soon die of brain cancer. I liked seeing two former presidents, the Democrat Obama and the Republican Bush (son)—and Bush passing candy to Mrs. Obama.

I marveled at the stoicism of the widow, Cindy McCain, which made the times she smiled more striking. Not quite captured by the cameras was McCain’s 106-year-old mother, said as well to be a very strong woman.

Then I stumbled on an article that led to a video clip about a memorial service in Phoenix, Arizona, and a eulogy from Grant Woods, McCain’s first congressional chief of staff. At one point, Woods spoke of McCain’s life as a prisoner of war (POW) in the Hanoi Hilton, the name given to the Vietnamese prison where the Americans were incarcerated.

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Christmas was always a difficult time for the American POWs, but McCain had memories of a North Vietnamese guard who once walked past him in the prison yard and, using his foot, drew a cross on the dirt floor, then quickly erased it again with his foot and walked away. McCain realized the guard was
Christian, and wanted to express a shared faith.

Woods then retold stories from McCain about how the prisoners would get together and share what they remembered
of biblical verses, and, of course, Christmas carols. McCain’s
favorite was “Silent Night.”

Toward the end of his eulogy, Woods moved away from the lectern and used his foot to draw a sign of the cross on the floor of the stage. He then returned to the lectern and said, slowly, “Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.”

I thought and wondered about the North Vietnamese guard. And then thought of the day of that Phoenix memorial service: Aug. 30. For once, the Americans beat us to the ber season.

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