MANILA, December 14, 2004 (STAR) COMMONNESS By Bong R. Osorio - It will be a bleak Christmas, if we were to go by newspaper headlines. The tragedy that has been vividly captured by television cameras in Aurora, Quezon and Isabela provinces make any merrymaking seem obscene. This is not helped by the increasing prices at the gas pumps and in the marketplace, causing a not-too-optimistic mood among the Juan de la Cruzes of this country.

Going around the metropolis, I noticed fewer houses glittering with the traditional Christmas parol, be it of the Pampanga, capiz or the ageless colored cellophane-papel-de-japon variety. There are numerous pockets of neighborhoods with feeble attempts at holiday decorating – usually just a couple of houses lording it over a stretch of road with their garish display of lights and flower-patterned lanterns on their front yard.

Even Ayala Avenue’s usual grand display of yuletide messages seem lost to the harried souls who ride the underpass escalators (which gets switched off by 7 p.m., to the wheezing exasperation of commuters who trudge up several flights of stationary stairs just to get from Herrera to the MRT station in EDSA) and, occasionally, partake of the culinary delights of ambulant food carts along the way (is it the pollution or the less-than-hygienic cooking that gives their fishballs and dipping sauces such delicious flavor?).

Within the walls of the sprawling shopping malls that dominate the city’s urban landscape (these gigantic monuments to the god of capitalism and free enterprise have replaced the churches as places of worship, if Sunday attendance to the malls and churches were compared), there is a far different picture. Restaurants are full, stores seem to be enjoying brisk sales, and people lug around armfuls of bulky shopping bags. Within these bastions of capitalism, the devastation of Infanta, Real and Montalban seem to be remnant memories of a bad dream.

Filipinos are one of the happiest peoples on earth, if a recent qualitative survey were to be believed. It is not surprising, therefore, that we also have the longest Christmas season in the world. Our fatalistic, devil-may-care and bahala na attitude has put us in good stead, at least in this survey. The world may come crashing down on us but we will simply dismiss it as inevitable, shrug our shoulders and move on to less depressing things. Collectively, we’d rather not confront the difficult and depressing issues; instead, we dwell on happy thoughts and making merry. Even the grave occasion of All Souls’ Day is an occasion for riotous fun – in the cemetery!

We seem to have taken the franchise for a merry Christmas, complete with all the trappings and rituals that go with it. A couple of enterprising amusement parks have even started making snow, just to complete the postcard-perfect image of a white Christmas, of course. Our ability for imitation and mimicry will, likewise, serve us well here. Just like Xerox, sometimes our imitations are even better than the originals. Window shop at our shopping malls-cum-tiangge and you’d swear, imitation Louis Vuitton bags are hardly discernible from the real ones. Even counterfeit visas give immigration officials of other countries a hard time (our knack for imitation has obviously rubbed off on our neighbors in Asia, the source of many of these fake goods. And technology is a new challenge for Pinoy counterfeiters at the moment).

"Merry Christmas" captures the timeless sense of optimism and pollyannish obstinacy that we have. About a month ago, the President herself declared that we WILL have a good Christmas, notwithstanding that she had just earlier declared the country in a fiscal crisis (which, miraculously, she declared we were out of a scant few weeks later). After 800 lives were lost to the recent flood of mud and timber in the eastern provinces, declaring that the government was going to go after illegal loggers seemed to have been sufficient to ease the national conscience and revert back to business as usual.

I wonder if it’s too late for us, Philippines Inc., to claim "Merry Christmas" as our brand, the penultimate stamp of cheer, as only a Filipino can. After all, in that all-too-important exercise of branding – a marketing strategy for strengthening the relationship between seller and buyer through the use of names designed to earn trust and confidence – we have not had a favorable brand strategy in the international market.

Singapore is known for its efficiency and no-nonsense business acumen, India has information technology and business process outsourcing. Vietnam has cheap labor, China has cheaper labor. What is the Philippines known for? Overseas domestic helpers? Japayukis? Imelda Marcos’ shoes? Why can we not be known for the one thing we’re truly good at? Making merry. If only we could bottle merriness and be able to sell it to the world, we’d be gazillionnaires!

I am not being facetious. Along with winter jackets and rubber shoes, Filipino-made Christmas decor has become a staple in the export market. JCPenneys and Wal-Mart are US outlets for these products. Paskuhan Village in San Fernando, Pampanga is a cornucopia of Christmas appurtenances, an all-year trade exhibit of the season’s trimmings. The usually-drab poinsettia is now the month’s favorite potted plant, red blossoms announcing the festive season from every driveway, office planter box and indoor flower arrangement. These are the tangible products that we make money on.

What if we could sell the intangibles? What if there was a way to deduce a formula to ensure a merry Christmas? We could document it, package it, shrink-wrap it, and sell it to countries which are in great need. By November, their great leaders can also come up on stage and fearlessly announce to the media and their countrymen that they WILL have a good Christmas, fiscal crisis or not.

What if, like a witch’s brew, we could concoct a potion – with just the right amount of fatalism, of devil-may-care attitude, and that unique Filipino ingredient, bahala na – mix in with a dash of religious bigotry (of the Catholics against a Greenhills mosque strain) and a liberal amount of government gobbledygook (to prevent detecting a snowjob, otherwise known as a cover-up), bottle it up, slap the "Merry Christmas Philippines" label on it, and sell it to any global citizen in need of cheer.

The possibilities are endless. Why, it could solve half the world’s problems, particularly the illegal drug trade. Why snort these headache-inducing drugs when you can get a 12-month high from a shot of Merry Christmas Philippines 24/7 Merrymaking pills? Or a dose of the Merry Christmas Philippines Pollyanna Optimist skin patch? Want to get rid of a problem? Why not try the Merry Christmas Philippines Blame-the-Illegal-Loggers chewables? One chewable every eight hours and you brush away blame and guilt over devastating national calamities.

The cold winds from China are now sweeping over the archipelago, reminding us of a change of seasons and of nippy pre-dawn excursions to church for simbang gabi. Our boundless optimism may seem out of place in a world full of greed and suffering. But, then again, it may be the very essence of what makes the Filipino a people with indomitable spirit, unwilling to concede to the destructive forces of nature nor to the unchecked avarice of a few. It may yet see us through these dark and trying times and be our best chance for redemption. If only we could bottle that.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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