MANILA, December 27, 2003  (STAR) FROM A DISTANCE By Carmen N. Pedrosa - It may be that we have the whole concept of Christmas upside down. Although it is a day to promote "peace and great tidings" of joy, I am not sure that it is what happens especially when Christians claim ownership of the day "to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the messiah of mankind". More serious Christians find the shopping and festivities "too pagan" and wholly unrelated to a sacred birth. But it may be that it is these Christians who have got it wrong. According to the pagan version, the ideas and rituals of Christmas come from Winter Solstice celebrations. This was when the sun reaches the lowest point in its annual apparent journey through the sky as seen from the Northern Hemisphere. To the ancients, the winter and summer solstices were important markers of the year. It signaled the seasonal oscillation between light and darkness, life and death, planting and harvest. Early agricultural societies celebrated the event, sometimes constructing monuments or other markers. It was this pagan idea of celebration when seasons change that was grafted on to the early Christian religion when the church sought to convert as many peoples.

So when present-day shoppers take to malls instead of churches, they may be closer to the pagan origins of Christmas. According to this version celebrating Christmas on December 25 goes back to celebrations on the solstice, and the Roman holiday of the Feast of the Saturnalia. Those who seek peace might turn to these pagan origins for a more unifying theme to celebrate Christmas. There are enough archaelogical evidence to prove that early cultures built tombs, temples and "sacred" celebratory areas during the solstices and equinoxes. Some of those are the Stonehenge in Britain, Newgrange in Ireland which is about 5,000 years old. In Iran, families kept fires burning throughout the night in observance of Yalda to commemorate the battle between light and darkness, good and evil. The Chinese celebrated Dong Zhi, or "the arrival of winter"; Hebrews have the Hanukkah or Jewish Festival of Lights. Hanukkah begins on Kislev 25, three days before the new moon is closest to the winter solstice. Perhaps "natural" holidays common to all of humanity – solstices and equinoxes – would make a better, if secular alternative. It makes for a less controversial excuse to party and celebrate. Christmas then will not belong to any religion. Returning to those origins of Christmas might lessen tensions between religions and bring "peace and tidings of great joy".

Superflous Senate

Senate President Franklin Drilon has made it clear often enough he will not allow constitutional reform to be debated in a joint plenary session of Congress. There is no time, he avers. To most Filipinos who are unaware of the workings of Congress, and especially the role of the Senate in a democracy, that seems a good excuse. But when the same Senate rejects a bill approved by the House for the planting of a billion trees just as hundreds died in cascading floods, it is time to question bicameral legislature. Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources Gozun called it a tragedy that could have been avoided. She said the farmers in the affected areas should have planted trees instead of cash crops. But more relevant "the tragedy should serve as a wake-up call for our legislators". She was appalled by its refusal "to realize the urgency of immediately passing the land use bill which has been awaiting legislative approval since the 9th Congress." The Billion Trees Act passed by the Lower House was also designed precisely to avert such tragedy.

What praise release could justify the Senate’s indifference to planting a billion trees? What higher interests of the state could be served by rejecting the House bill? Do the senators understand ‘the real needs of the people’ when they die like flies in a torrent of mud because our mountains are deforested with no serious long-term planning. It is a good example of the worst aspects of a bicameral legislature.

I suspect the Senate under the leadership of Mr. Drilon will not pass bills which would enhance the work of the Lower House, especially if it is actively promoted by Speaker Jose de Venecia. Instead bills are used as hostages for their own interests. Once again the political tug of war of the two Houses is to blame. A weak Senate leadership has been detrimental not only to the hundreds who died in Southern Leyte but to the rest of the country under threat of deforested areas. The next time the Senate says it has no time, think of the Southern Leyte tragedy and the rejection of the Billion Trees Act.. The House of Representatives passed the Land Use bill on third reading and awaits the Senate version of the law before both Houses go into a bicameral hearing. The Senate is yet to conclude its second reading for interpolation. The bill also proposes the creation of a network of protected areas for forestry, agriculture, agrarian reform, and rural development, which should be non-negotiable for conversion.

At press time the required supplemental budget for electoral reforms and the absentee voting to overseas Filipinos, remains unpassed not because as a praise release says the Senate "needs slow deliberation". One reliable source said "it is being held hostage for concessions from the Executive". It was deliberated and reached only the first reading. I would think that a regular budget for the coming year is one of the most important duties of the Senate and yet it had no time, hence the supplemental budget. I do not believe the Senate with senators aspiring to be president or vice-president will not pass this supplemental budget but it would do so only in their own sweet time and after the proper quid pro quo. All other important issues will have to be shelved for something as necessary as the supplemental budget for the May elections for it to take place at all. Constitutional reform may be a collateral damage to this "legislative tit for tat".

I know members of the House and the Local authority tried very hard to get the Senate to debate the issue, so Drilon’s claims of Senate statesmanship are empty. A praise release cannot make up for a stubborn Senate that has hurt the country. The constitutional reform debate which would argue to shift the country from an inefficient bicameral legislature to a leaner and effective unicameral legislature will be the principal casualty of the Senate’s pussyfooting on the supplementary budget.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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