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Dreaming of a brown Christmas

04:03 AM November 12, 2019

I wonder if there are others, like me, who feel it’s incongruous to hear “White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells” sung each year during what we Filipinos call the “ber” months (September, October, November, December). This has long been seen as perfectly normal. Perhaps it’s something in the air starting in September (even if it’s still rather torrid, with occasional typhoons), but somehow, hearts beat a little faster in anticipation of a bountiful season ahead. There is the 13th-month salary at year’s end for many workers, and gifts expected from and given to relatives and friends.

If American composer Irving Berlin were alive today, he might have been intrigued by the way a tropical country has long embraced his most popular song, “White Christmas.” He’d surely learn that it’s been a standard Filipino carol, more or less, since the end of World War II.

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Berlin was born in imperial Russia in 1888 and immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 5 years old, during the time when great waves of Jewish people fled political and economic oppression in Europe. Activist writer and poet Emma Lazarus wrote about the “tired, poor, homeless, tempest-tost” refugees. Her sonnet “The New Colossus,” describing the new arrivals as “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” is enshrined below New York’s Statue of Liberty.

Like countless other Jewish people newly arrived in America, Irving Berlin rose from poverty in a New York slum. Like many of his compatriots who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, he worked at various jobs, eventually veering toward music. He began composing catchy tunes, and when war clouds were forming in 1941, he wrote “White Christmas.” It aired 18 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, becoming an instant hit. American soldiers posted abroad and yearning for home would hear the wistful melancholy song first sung by Bing Crosby via the popular medium of radio. By war’s end, the song was a best-seller, eventually winning Berlin an Academy Award.

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Berlin was not a Christian but Jewish, and he’d spend each Christmas visiting the grave of his son who died, only three weeks old, on Christmas Day, 1928.

“White Christmas” has been a staple during the holiday season in the Philippines obviously because the country was America’s only colony. Like other Western customs which Filipinos have acquired, the plethora of English Christmas carols has tended to overshadow native ones. During the Spanish era, Christmas songs were usually sung only in church, with more emphasis being placed on the Misa de Gallo and Noche Buena fiesta. Family gatherings amid decorations like the “parol” and “belen” have transcended any colonial feelings.

A report in late October said additional numbers of police were being fielded in Baguio for the holidays to ensure safety for the peak tourist season, with most donning Cordillera G-strings and “tapis.” There was no mention of whether they would also warble Christmas carols while on patrol.

In my years of living in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong and attending Christmas parties given by expatriate Filipino communities (composed mainly of OFWs), folks would inevitably break out into “White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells,” oblivious of the fact that our country has no winter where folks go “dashing through the snow.” Now and then, some would include native carols like “Ang Pasko ay Sumapit” and also the Spanish “Feliz Navidad.”

There was a monthly newspaper in Hong Kong to which I would contribute occasionally. One year, I decided to write lyrics to be sung to the tune of “White Christmas”:

“I’m dreaming of a brown Christmas/just like the ones I used to know/ where parols all glisten/and children listen/to Maligayang Pasko!

“I’m dreaming of a brown Christmas/hoping my loved ones see no harm/may your days be merry and warm/and may all your Christmases be brown.”

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I also wanted to rework the lyrics of “Jingle Bells,” but few seemed to cotton on to my “Brown Christmas” so I desisted. I’d tentatively written:

“Crawling down the streets/in jeepneys packed to bits/o’er foul streets we sway/gasping all the way/horns on cars all pop/making spirits drop/it’s all such hell that you just want to simply give it up.

“Oh, gates of hell, gates of hell/it’s a living hell/oh what hell it is to ride/and breathe the traffic smell!”

Later on I realized that those who insisted on singing “White Christmas” were actually dreaming of immigrating to countries where Christmases are white. Indeed, many of them have happily done so.

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Isabel Escoda has been writing for the Inquirer since the 1980s.

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TAGS: Christmas, Christmas carols, Inquirer Commentary, Irving Berlin, Isabel Escoda
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