Caroling in small and big worlds

Caroling in small and big worlds

Christmas decor sales. Jose Mari Chan’s albums flocking the front row of racks. Hearing Mariah Carey for hours in the mall, just because it also takes you hours in exchange gift shopping for a classmate you barely know.

Signs of Christmas appear the quickest and earliest of all–for our country, at least. However, all of the aforementioned quirks and everything else one could think of will never outweigh one that perhaps persists the longest, very involving at all costs–caroling.

I grew up in a Manila neighborhood that is relatively quiet. The frequent passersby are just slow sidecars and tricycles carrying seniors with bags of overpriced vegetables. Our break of day soundtracks are just walis tambo against the ground, and barks because yeah, I think our place is safe for pets. Loud chismisan comes at eccentric, reasonable times.

On the first night of the nine-day Misa De Gallo (more commonly known as Simbang Gabi), though, it turns to a quite different story.

It’s that time of the month when we seem to take off our earphones of silence–noise is needed to know our neighborhood a little more. Our neighboorhood–along with the rest of the neighborhoods in the Philippines–undresses itself. My afternoon naps would automatically be cut short as fleeting “Thank you, thank you, ang babait ninyo, thank you!” or the opposite, “ang babarat ninyo, thank you!” slap a sticky resident’s reputation.

The innocent voices–some forgivably off-tune–conquer the cold year-end air. Christmas songs sung by strangers then become an every night norm, keeping us contained hook, line, and sinker, and the only thing that needs to be done is save a jar of coins or candies whenever these persistent kids pay us a visit.

Christmas songs sung by strangers then become an every night norm, keeping us contained hook, line, and sinker, and the only thing that needs to be done is save a jar of coins or candies whenever these persistent kids pay us a visit.

Signs of Christmas appear the quickest–probably equal to caroling being a rapid form of entertainment.

But how did this come about? According to Sam Abramson of HowStuffWorks, “there’s no definitive history behind Christmas caroling. Where they originated who wrote them, and how they evolved is unclear.”

Narratives aside, I agree–caroling is still something I find difficult to historicize. We have a few documents to put piece by piece, though.

So, when did we start singing to strangers for coins?

Before we claim full possession, we shall know that this isn’t exactly an “only Filipinos do this” thing. Of course, we have our uniquely fun ways of doing it, and we have a huge collection of Christmas jams only we can perfectly sing. It does not, though, invalidate the fact that this was brought with the help of foreign influences.

The word carol itself as a noun actually originated in 1300s, and has been used as Old French carole meaning “kind of dance in a ring, round dance accompanied by singers.” Carole as a verb, on the other hand, is also of Old French origin, defined as “to sing with joy or festivity,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

In the similar HowStuffWorks article, the first carols were “purportedly first written in Latin in the 4th and 5th centuries, but they didn’t become associated with Christmas until the 13th century.” As a dominantly Catholic country, it’s probably a good thing to note that St. Francis of Assisi was known “incorporating upbeat Latin hymns into Christmas services.”

In Europe, caroling as a practice was eventually developed. In “Caroling: a Pinoy tradition with English roots” by Tinig ng Plaridel, carols during those times were said to be “about religious entities, not always about Christmas” in combined English and Latin. The definite relationship of Christmas and caroling came in the 19th century–due to the “commercialization and popularity” which led to continued production of carol anthologies.

According to Eastbook, Eastern Europeans today see caroling as an old but popular ritual. Since the tradition is rooted not in “Christmas carols” but in “New Year’s songs,” folks go door-to-door singing these. This, being under the wing of Christian rituals, leads to “Ukrainian Vertep,” the exchange of small symbolic gifts. Other than this, songs or “carols” are typically involved in parades and choirs in Christmas concerts.

In the little villages and towns of Sheffield, England, Christmas carol singing is still being done, according to Folkways. These village carols are performed with very few instruments or even none at all. Jingles are recorded live in the pubs.

Taking the words of Mr. Eman de Leon, member of the conducting faculty of the University of the Philippines Diliman College of Music and music conductor of UP Manila Chorale, Filipino caroling is said to have began “as early as the Spanish occupation,” making it one of the contributions of Spain to our culture.

De Leon further added how caroling has become the ultimate indication of the start of our local yuletide season, “during these times, you will hear the expression “malapit nang magpasko.” My parents always tell this when it’s September, and they will keep on reminding us to save money.”

Philippines is the current title holder of the longest Christmas celebrator in the world. With that, it has a lot to show off; as if Filipinos have already set the standard on how holidays should happen.

Philippines is the current title holder of the longest Christmas celebrator in the world. With that, it has a lot to show off; as if Filipinos have already set the standard on how holidays should happen.

In an article by CNN Philippines, Karoling is included in the list of what makes Christmas in our country unique. Most of us know why: we build something from scratch. Seriously, have you ever chanced upon any other country finish makeshift drums like it’s an everyday activity? Milk cans from your neighbor’s fruit salad sesh instantly turn into percussion wonders, or even coin keepers–beside plastic jars with splattered paint, of course. The aftermath of the Titos of Manila’s drinking session yield the finest treasure–aluminum bottle tops or tansan that when combined, can already finish a song. Move over, tambourines.

Most of us know those things. However, growing up, I witnessed the deeper reality behind caroling, especially when children who organize themselves are in the spotlight, and not church choirs or civic organizations, well-preprared for their songs. Behind these children’s forgivably off-tune voices, the fun, the festivity, and the friendship people get to form from it, do you also wonder: what is really the heavier reason behind singing to strangers for coins? Come to think of it, caroling in the Philippines is realistically a form of begging.

What is really the heavier reason behind singing to strangers for coins? Come to think of it, caroling in the Philippines is realistically a form of begging.

As time fleets, it has formed a peculiar feeling–that sometimes this isn’t just a part of our Christmas culture, or our culture in general. Have you noticed the same about these kids we meet, standing at our doorways? When we hear these voices of little ones trying to hit high notes, or the way they struggle saying a particular word in a song, or when they cough in between the lines, or when we see their naked feet when we peek outside our gate? Have you also told yourself: maybe this is a wake up call, too. And it only becomes a call to action when we rise up from our sleep.

Caroling for these kids has become a form of transaction.

Caroling for these kids has become a form of transaction. Some would say that looking at it this way is stripping off that “Christmas spirit” of a purpose. What a killjoy. But come to think of it, if these kids sing merely for holiday cheer, then why are there instances when they get so mad when you say “patawad,” as if you sinned against them? At times, they won’t even leave at your first remorse.

There’s this existing tenacity–they won’t stop singing unless they get something from you. There are also moments when they get irked over something you gave, just because it isn’t exactly what they truly desired. These encounters are no strangers to me, as I’ve chanced upon kids getting all angry over a 10-peso coin because they wanted a twenty, or when I give snacks but they wanted money. It obviously isn’t solely for the yuletide spirit when it doesn’t feel voluntary.

It obviously isn’t solely for the yuletide spirit when it doesn’t feel voluntary.

As Jose Mari Chan sings, “Whenever I see girls and boys selling lanterns on the street,” I remember it with the same scenario of kids singing to strangers for coins. As that line plays, I want to continue it with my thoughts–that I remember how poverty has rattled our nation, and kids working in any possible way has become a sad, sad norm for us. I remember how the government has repeatedly failed to alleviate this problem, which forces minors to take the risk outside their homes just so they can have food to eat the next day. And we should all remember that staying outside, day or night, is terribly dangerous now.

It’s fun for you, me, and them–but to what extent? It’s lowkey labor to an extent that burdens. As much as caroling binds us through the years, and as much as it lets us build something out of anything, we can only hope that it’s as comforting and happy as those who are practically just forced to do it. Those who do it not solely because it’s fun.

With this in hand, we have to accept that whether we give or we don’t doesn’t really take a long toll on how this phenomenon runs.

With this in hand, we have to accept that whether we give or we don’t doesn’t really take a long toll on how this phenomenon runs. If you don’t give money tonight, there’ll still be carolers–more persistent to look for other houses to replace the time you wasted. If you give, there’ll still be carolers–more persistent to continue what they do, because you gave them hope that this method is effective enough to be a source of living. We can, however, lessen the chances of them being forced to sing for coins in the first place.

Last Dec. 16, the DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development) reiterated a seemingly yearly appeal to Filipinos: don’t give alms to beggars. While this call sounds like something that can be improved, we can nonetheless take the good part of it. This is the aim ”to direct our help to long-term programs that would provide a comprehensive help to our fellow citizens who are IPs (indigenous peoples) and street children,” says DSWD spokesperson and Assistant Secretary Glenda Relova.

These groups move almost the same way carolers do. They roam the concrete jungle. They knock on windows. They knock on doors. Houses, and even vehicles. They ask for Christmas blessings. With our limited capabilities and non-guaranteed resources, perhaps we can walk towards the path of volunteering for different non-government organisations that offer food, shelter, and guidance for the unfortunate minors. Taking part in honest initiatives ensure that our help gets across. That our help works on a bigger, longer scale. The more these organizations are supported, the bigger pulls we can do to bring children out of forced labor.

Taking part in honest initiatives ensure that our help gets across. That our help works on a bigger, longer scale. The more these organizations are supported, the bigger pulls we can do to bring children out of forced labor.

Amidst our shifting opinions brought by fast-moving factors from our ever-changing environment, we must remember the one real enemy that doesn’t stop for the holidays: poverty.

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Jelou Galang
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