The greatest gift of all
One of my mother’s most vivid memories was about trying to get home on the tranvia in Manila on Dec. 8, 1941, in panic, with people shouting “gyera, gyera (war, war)!”
News had arrived that the United States had declared war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor. We were still under the Americans, so we were drawn immediately into the war. In fact, a few hours after Pearl Harbor, Japan had begun its offensive, through aerial bombardment and ground troop deployments, to occupy the Philippines. By Jan. 2, 1942, Manila had fallen to the Japanese.
It must have been a dismal Christmas in 1941, and in the war years that followed.
More than 70 years after the end of World War II, we remain a world marked by armed conflict. There is even a Wikipedia “List of ongoing armed conflicts in the world,” with data from various sources, including real-time casualty figures from a group called Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (acleddata.com).
Five conflicts are listed as having had 10,000 or more deaths in the current or past year: Afghanistan, Iraq, the Mexican drug war, the Syrian civil war and the Yemeni crisis.
Another 55 conflicts are listed, including three for the Philippines. The “Moro conflict” with 268 deaths in the current year, the “CPP-NPA-NDFP rebellion” with 203 fatalities… and the Philippine drug war, with 886. I paused while typing, wondering what we should call them: deaths, fatalities, killings?
Many of the conflicts are long-standing ones that have festered and simmered through the years. The longest one listed is the Arab separatist movement in Khuzestan (Iran) that goes back to 1922.
The CPP-NPA-NDFP rebellion is mentioned as having started in 1969. But it really has its roots much earlier, as a continuation of the Huk Rebellion that began as an anti-Japanese resistance movement, which then continued after the war as a peasant rebellion. The Huks were led by the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas, which declined in the 1960s until a reconstituted Communist Party of the Philippines was founded on Dec. 26, 1968 (yes, exactly 50 years ago).
I grimaced at the description of one of the major conflicts: The “Yemeni crisis,” I felt, is such an understatement. It is one of the worst ongoing wars, with children as the main casualties, though probably not counted in the figures because they die more often from hunger than from bullets.
We had two Christmas concerts this year in UP Diliman, one with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra and another with a newly constituted UP Symphony Orchestra. Humming the Christmas tunes together with the orchestras was the first time I became conscious about how “peace” comes up in so many Christmas carols.
“O Little Town of Bethlehem” calls for “peace to men on earth.” “Silent Night” has “sleep in heavenly peace.”
Many Christmas carols are remembered only for their first two or three stanzas, so the messages of peace might disappear. Did you know, for example, that “O Holy Night” has this line: “Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His Gospel is peace.”
From “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” we sing out “peace on earth, goodwill to men,” but in a later, less-known stanza, we have “yet, with the woes of sin and strife, the world has suffered long.”
I am sure these carols became more meaningful during the two world wars, especially for soldiers in the trenches and for the families left behind.
With armed conflicts now localized and scattered, we think less of the need for peace.
At the two UP Christmas concerts, the Filipino carols tended to be happy, frivolous ones. But standing out, actually not quite a Christmas carol but still a favorite for the season, was “Payapang Daigdig (Peaceful World),” composed by Felipe de Leon Sr., with lyrics by Eduardo de Leon and Brigido Batungbakal.
The stories about the song vary, but it seems it was written shortly after the end of the war.
Might it have been close to Christmas when the song was written, with its plaintive longing for peace as the opening? “Ang gabi’y payapa, lahat ay tahimik, pati mga tala, sa bughaw na langit.”
The night is peaceful, all is quiet, even the stars in the blue sky.
If I might end on a more cheerful note, we do have a more contemporary Christmas carol whose title sums up what we should feel about peace: “The Greatest Gift of All” — and, I will add, the greatest gift we can give each other.
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