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POV Philippines by Jon Joaquin

Silent Night

by Jon Joaquin

Joy to the world the Lord is gone
Berting, berting, berting!

The first time I heard this in Davao City I had a good laugh. It was sung by a group of children out on a night of carolling and I had to strain to make out the rest of the words. It sounded like,

“In eber eber hart
In eber eber room
In eber watusi
In eber watusi
In eber, in eber in watusi!”

It brought me back to the time when I was a kid and my older brother and I would go carolling with some neighbourhood kids. One particular night stands out in my mind: We had just sung a song and the homeowner had generously given us some coins. The usual response was, “Thank you, thank you, ang babait ninyo (you are so nice), thank you!” but for some reason I sang “ang babarat ninyo (you are so stingy).” I had a good scolding from my brother after that.

But it was the same brother who taught me the “lyrics” to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer:

Rudolph the red-nosed raindrop
Had a very shiny shoe
And if you ever sausage
You will even say itlog…

If you think only Filipinos mishear Christmas songs, think again. Apparently even English-speaking folks make mistakes like these:

Olive, the other reindeer, used to laugh and call him names…

He’s makin’ a list of chicken and rice…

Get dressed, ye married gentlemen…


Christmas was always a silent holiday for me when I was growing up. In Manila, the weeks leading up to December 25 were always quiet… well, save for the carollers (especially those who brought an entire marching band with them). But all in all, the holidays were always a pleasant time. The firecrackers normally started on the day after Christmas, and would last into New Year’s Eve (and sometimes beyond).

So it came as a surprise to me when I moved to Davao City that here, the tradition was to explode firecrackers on Christmas Eve. I remember the feeling of disconcertment and dissonance because there the locals were, singing Silent Night but lighting up rebentadors, rockets, Judas belts, and all sorts of pyrotechnics. It felt like their preferred version of the song was Simon and Garfunkel’s Silent Night/7 O’clock News, minus the explosions, but chilling nonetheless. For someone like me who hated the sound of firecrackers, it made for a rather unpleasant holiday.

But then 911 terror attacks happened in New York, and in its aftermath then-Mayor Rodrigo Duterte banned the use of pyrotechnics in the city. He reasoned that it was easy for terrorists to mount an attack because the holiday noise would mask their guns and explosives, and they could quickly overrun the city. The announcement was initially met with opposition, but being mostly good citizens the Dabawenyos obeyed the order and we celebrated our first silent Christmas on December 25, 2001.

For me it was a welcome respite. After nine years, we finally had a Christmas that I was used to. I think Dabawenyos didn’t know what to do on that first silent night; for my family’s part, we went out of our gate to greet the neighbours. But more than just a quiet holiday, the firecracker ban earned for the city a casualty count of zero, down from the usual one hundred or so each year. It became so successful that the City Council decided to make the firecracker ban a law.

Now the situation is reversed. I understand that in the years since I left, Metro Manilans have turned Christmas Eve into a firecracker fest — complete with the annual casualty parade in hospital emergency rooms. It’s been such a long time since I spent Christmas there, but I think if I did, I would be sorely disappointed at what had become of my favourite holiday. Unfortunately President Duterte has deferred an initial decision to ban firecrackers in the entire country, but hopefully this will still push through in the coming year.

For now I relish the fact that at least here in Davao City, we will be having a Silent Night on December 25.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the original author, and do not necessarily represent those of the Pilipino Express publishers.

Jon Joaquin is the Chief Editor of www.mindanation.com. E-mail Jon at jonjoaquin@gmail.com

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