Christmas in the Philippines? We’ve been at it since September. It’s the time of year where we have license to put up holiday decorations, eat kakanin more often than usual, and start playing Christmas carols on full blast. And there’s a particular song that is once again making its rounds.
“Ang number 1 best-selling album pa rin sa buong Pilipinas ay ang Christmas album ni Jose Mari Chan,” says Maisie Joven, host of the Musikalikot podcast. Thirty years after its release, “Christmas in our Hearts” remains a Filipino household (and social media!) staple. In the podcast’s Christmas episode, Joven and guests music educator Krina Cayabyab and ethnomusicologist Dr. Lara Mendoza explain why Jose Mari Chan’s music captures the unique spirit of a Filipino Christmas.
Ang tunog ng Paskong Pinoy
In 1990, when asked by his producer to write a Christmas song, Jose Mari Chan could only remember the American carols he grew up with. “And from [“Little Christmas Tree”] he took the inspiration by starting off with a minor mode going to a major mode. Which, sabi nga niya, very Filipino and coming from that kundiman and villancico structure or form,” says Krina Cayabyab from the UP College of Music.
The instruments used in the song also lend to its Pinoy feel. “Nakatikla siya sa keyboard, pero yung sound na sinisimulate is plucked strings, tapos ayun na, pumapasok na yung kampana (na) parang Simbang Gabi,” says ethnomusicologist Dr. Lara Mendoza.
According to Dr. Mendoza, the quality of Jose Mari Chan’s voice also evokes the Christmas spirit. “It’s lilting, light, and conversational. As a tenor, mataas yung boses niya. There is always an appeal pag mataas, kasi childlike. It evokes something that is simple (and) uncomplicated.”
And with his daughter Liza singing with him, it speaks to Filipinos’ close family ties. Instant nostalgia activated!
The Pinoy Meaning of Christmas
“From the 1500s to the 1900s, malayo na ang pinagbago ng Christmas songs natin,” says Joven in the episode powered by PLDT Home. “Nagkaroon ito ng local flavor, hindi lang sa wikang ginagamit, kung ‘di lalo na sa nilalaman na lyrics.”
Cayabyab says, “It’s very much experiential. Parang it covers the experience of Filipino Christmas— yung simoy ng hangin dito sa Pilipinas every Christmas. … Kinapture ng “Pasko Na Naman” yung idea ng dawn mass, … and then siyempre yung “Noche Buena” na naging practice in a lot of Christianized countries, but we have our own expression of what noche buena is.”
And “Christmas in our Hearts” is no different. Dr. Mendoza says, “The lyrics hoove to Pinoy sentimentalities with its appropriate religiosity. … It’s not as materialistic as ‘people making lists, buying special gifts.’”
The song uplifts Filipinos not just because it sounds good, but because it inspires them to strive for a “bright tomorrow.”
“It’s a beautiful song for the Christmas season because … we have such a screwed up society and everything is just always dark,” says Mendoza. “When you hear it at Christmas, it’s a reminder of how beautiful and simple life can be if people were just kind and good to each other.”
“Musikalikot” is a podcast that discusses the rich and quirky history of Filipino music.
Find Musikalikot and other PumaPodcast productions on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.