By By Ramonfelipe A. Sarmiento
After the Cheers
posted 8-Mar-2007  ·  
1,663 views  ·   0 comments  ·  

When this article gets to the readers, I would be back in Manila suffering from post-holiday blues. But that will be easily dealt with because it is just one of the many downslides of a continuing emotional roller-coaster ride since a month ago. It started with the great downer that was typhoon Reming and the almost weeklong of paranoia in Manila due of the total breakdown of communication with the home-province in the immediate aftermath of the howler. And then came the up swing. The news that one’s loved ones back home were safe and kicking well, like the survivors that they have always been, brought such an exhilarating, soaring sense of relief. But the down swoop came again. While traveling on RSL, we were confronted with the reality of devastation, increasing with surreal grimness as we get more and more into Albay. From the ferryboat, our hearts sank as the mountains of the island of our affections materialized in clearer details from the horizon, the green of health and abundance replaced with the brown of battery and desolation. As we motored to Virac, we were close to tears. Ay kapupung-aw. But the dismal mood proved short-lived. As night crept in early, the sights of destruction were swallowed by darkness and replaced, almost magically, by the multi-colored riot of tivoli lights and lanterns! Thus we soared back to the upbeat feeling of the holidays.

It was Christmas as usual, after all. And in Virac no less, because Christmas in Virac is Christmas like no other, courtesy of - among other things - the Christmas Cheers! So in our first night after arrival in Virac, even while still nursing our seasickness, (our lingering ribong, ta mga Sarmiento baga?), we made our way to Plaza Rizal to partake of the many joys of Christmas Cheers 2006. To our little amazement (and annoyance), we had a hard time getting seating spaces among the booths that offer food and drinks: they were full of people. Which made us think: Haen man uya ang binagyuhan? Haen man ang ga tili-os? If we were first-time strangers in Virac, our disorientation would be thorough. But, as indeed we were at home, we knew what was going on: we Catandunganons are equally good at handling typhoons as we are at celebrating Christmas.

This piece is about the Christmas Cheers. January is such a lean month, the low after the high of holidays, ta malang hubas na, ubos na su bonus. Discussing Christmas Cheers would be a good way to let the temporary blues pass away, while waiting for the thrills of Valentine’s Day in the short term and the restoration of pre-Reming happy days in the long-term.

The Cheers is over twenty years old; perhaps even just a few years short of thirty. If Reming’s viciousness was not able to stop it, what could? Perhaps doomsday itself. It only goes to show that the Cheers is already a well-established practice, on its way to being worthy of the term "tradition." And that is what makes it remarkable. We always think that "tradition" is something of the olden days, su mga suanoy, which we assume to have been in place "since time immemorial." But people continue to actively form new traditions. Much here in our island-province as it is elsewhere. We endlessly shape culture. There is such a thing as a "modern tradition" and Christmas Cheers is one of them. Just twenty years ago or so, it was something new in our lives, but now we cannot anymore imagine our Christmas observances without it. It has become part of what is being a Viracnon. In fact, most of those in the young set now, those of the last two generations, never knew Christmas without the nightly Cheers.

How and when did it exactly start? Who were involved? I have personal knowledge of some of the aspects of the Cheers’ beginnings so I would like to share them here. One characteristic of traditions is that people do not anymore know how they began; the issues of their beginnings and history become muddled up with legends and folklore. As with the Christmas Cheers, I guess we can still establish the facts accurately before allowing it to be taken over by myth. There is a need to set the records straight so that a hundred years from now, the people will know what really happened. So before I tell my story, I enjoin those others who knew bits, pieces or large chunks of the Cheers’ history to come forward and share them. Surely, nobody has a monopoly of the Cheers’ grand narrative. It has become a people’s tradition, so therefore let its history should be woven by the people together.

So here goes my account.

The first Christmas Cheers took place sometime during the early phase of the Youth Encounter program of the Diocese of Virac. I have yet to determine the exact year, but it should either be within the last two years of the seventies or the onset of the eighties. So the Cheers would be like twenty-seven years old, quite older than what many would like to acknowledge. I attended the first regular batch of the YE (Youth Encounter; there were trial batches) that took place in a summer and by December of that year, we piloted the Christmas Cheers. A few days before the start of the misa-misa, Bishop Sorra called for a meeting of representatives from religious organizations (I attended for the YE). The agenda? To put together a sort of a night Christmas fair at the Cathedral patio. The idea was to have booths selling goodies or offering amusements around the area and hold programs to showcase local talents. The monsignor even suggested that the bahay-kubos at the plaza used for the agro-industrial fair during the town fiesta be borrowed to serve as booths in the Christmas fair. So we went to work. As for the YE booth, we borrowed the kubo of barangay Pajo because it was nearest to the patio and was relatively intact. Having been given permission by the barangay captain, the YE veterans, both male and female, carried the hut bayanihan-style from the plaza to the churchyard.

For the opening night, we didn’t have a full program as we do it now, but we had a colorful launching ceremony. Two kids dress as dolls (boy and girl) were wrapped inside a huge Christmas present box tied up with giant ribbon. Tio Goyeto Sarmiento, representing the Parish Pastoral Council did the honor of untying the box, and the two dolls popped out to the accompaniment of fun-fare music. Then they did a dance number. The few nights that featured programs came up with fun but modest fares compared to the present nightly extravaganzas.

As for our YE booth, we made hotcakes that indeed sold like hotcakes. No liquor then. No concessionaires that competed for slots through a raffle. There were only a handful of snack booths. And there were some fun booths too like the one of Hablon Dawani wherein Noli Rodrigueza installed a round pen with a number of ducks walking about inside, endlessly quacking. The thrill consisted of throwing wire rings on the fowls, for a fee of course. If you are able to shoot the ring round any of the ducks’ neck, you get a price.

Such simple joys the first Christmas Cheers offered. I cannot remember if it was sustained into the next year. Soon after, I would relocate to Manila for graduate schooling. What I did remember was coming home for the holidays and discovering that the merry-making event at the patio was on again, this time in much grander proportions. Then the rest is history. The Cheers continued to evolve up to its present form, way, way beyond what we could imagine during that pioneering year.

There is a lot to say about the Christmas Cheers as an expression of creativity and sense of community spirit of the Catandunganons. So let me repeat my appeal. Come forward and tell us your story about the Cheers. Anything. Any piece of anecdote or bit of information will be useful. The funny, the sad, the noble or the ridiculous. You may even contradict my assertions here as to the beginnings. On my part, I will continue seeking information around. Next Christmas season, hopefully, we will be able to come up with a fuller account of the Cheers, and of what it tells about us as a people. Meanwhile, cheers everyone for a fruitful New Year!

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