Christmas in a time of COVID
Dr. Dennis P. McCann’s Annual Christmas Message to Silliman’s International Students 2020
How can we celebrate Christmas when you are mostly not here? Well, the staff is trying really hard to overcome this obvious difficulty by turning this into a virtual event. So, we’re broadcasting, mostly over the internet, I assume, and I hope this will reach you wherever you are, in some sort of quarantine, still waiting, we hope, for the green light to return safely to Silliman University, and to Dumaguete, our beloved city by the sea.
In spite of your absence, apparently, Christmas is still coming. Yesterday was the first day of the last of the B-R-R-R months, which means a time for giving and receiving presents, and many feasts involving Lechon Baboy, and other signs of renewing our communion among family, relatives, and friends. Preparations for Christmas continue apace. At our home in Camanjac, we now have two trees decorated, one an artificial pine that our apo Joaqui and I picked out years ago at Lee Plaza, on which the usual Western Christmas ornaments and blinking lights now hang, and the other, an indigenous wicker creation now supporting various local flowered decorations, complete with its own set of blinking lights, all waiting for the gifts that will be distributed at our annual family Christmas party. And on campus, the big artificial tree on the lawn outside Silliman Hall has once again been erected, the frame now supporting a very impressive yellow star, and a burlap covering now decked with wicker balloons and wrapped in a continuous and broad ribbon of brown, all looking very Visayan.
In downtown Dumaguete and in the local shopping plazas, the Christmas music blares on, so that by the time Christmas arrives, we will have had “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and other perennial favorites, drummed into our skulls, to the point where even the most mild-mannered among us will be tempted to shout, “Bah, Humbug!” Rest assured, even in Dumaguete, the commercial Christmas overkill continues unabated, the only good thing being, perhaps, the number of temporary salespeople hired to push Christmas hams, Christmas cheese balls, Christmas dinnerware, Christmas ornaments, and any other tchotchkes that can be linked to Christmas. If all this sounds uncannily similar to how things are going wherever you are, it may be comforting to know that you aren’t missing out on much by not being here.
The way we celebrate Christmas nowadays strikes me as strange. What is happening here is not unique. I’ve seen the same fevered commercialization in Hong Kong, in Florida, the USA, and even in the Peoples Republic of China. The world’s merchants, whatever their own beliefs may be, have turned the Christmas season into an indispensable profit-center, as they manipulate our sentimentality to spend more than is necessary to express our goodwill toward those who find favor with us. What’s puzzling is that all this activity, the shopping, the parties, the gift exchanges—including this annual International Students Christmas Event—occur during Advent, traditionally a season for penance in preparation for the birth of our Savior. By the time Christmas actually arrives, all the gifts have been opened, all the food and drink have been consumed, and all that is left is a very quiet Christmas day, a good time to take a nap. By the time Christmas arrives, we are so surfeited with our celebrations that maybe going to a movie is the most we are up for. Sometimes, I wonder whether our universities are partly responsible for this strange situation. Whatever is to happen on campus must happen before the students normally leave for Christmas vacation. So our rounds of parties and other special events must occur before Christmas, thus further distancing ourselves from Advent and its timely disciplines.
Celebrating Christmas in the time of COVID may be a blessing since it is so clearly disruptive of our normal patterns for getting through the B-R-R-R months. The general quarantine restrictions, which necessarily remain in place right now, are meant to save us from our own proclivities. We are urged, if not commanded, to restrict the size of our gatherings. Even the Silliman Church remains closed, and its services are performed for live streaming on Facebook and YouTube. At this point, we don’t know if there will be a Christmas Eve service in the church. Nor should there be, if the Provincial health officials rule against it. Under the circumstances, we do what we can. Just as the University has had to undertake a major retooling of educational programs and course syllabi, to switch to digital learning methods as much as possible, even for this our International Students celebration, Christmas must be redeveloped to cope with what COVID has done to us. And just as digital learning has proved to be not a fully satisfactory substitute for face-to-face relationships in learning and teaching, so a digitalized virtual Christmas celebration can hardly make up for the absence of our international students and their families.
But rather than complain about our straightened circumstances, perhaps we should accept them as an opportunity. What is the meaning of Christmas in our university community? We all know Silliman’s claims about its Christian heritage, starting with “Via-Veritas-Vita.” We all love Baby Jesus… or do we? Let’s think about that. Last year, I highlighted the Christmas Cantata’s song, “Mary, Don’t You Know?” There is so much to learn, emotionally and spiritually, from that question. For Mary’s Baby is fated to suffer for our sins, and die wretchedly on a cross, as a “sword of sorrow” will pierce His Mother’s heart. What a strange and troubling story this is, that the Incarnation of God, the Word become Flesh, which ought to signify the height and depth of human dignity for all of us, should lead instead to His emphatic rejection and humiliation by all of us. What is it about us—what my own mother referred to as our “own dirty way of doing things”—that should lead to this result? Why are we so filled with hatred and distrust, contempt for others and indifference to their sufferings, and dismissal of anyone who would dare remind us of our hypocrisies? Given what we all daily do to crucify Mary’s Baby, I fear that our usual Christmas celebrations are just another distraction, a way to mask for ourselves and for others the fact that we are not the people of good will to whom peace on earth has been announced and offered.
If Christmas is to be truly celebrated, we should take the COVID crisis as an opportunity for self-reflection and a change of heart. We need to get beyond the comforting sentimentality of conventional Christmases and admit our complicity in a world that appears to be falling apart. What have we done to reach out to those who have been seriously damaged by the COVID crisis? That’s starts with families we know that have lost loved ones to the virus. But it also must include all those whose livelihoods have been threatened, if not totally wiped out. One of the things that I am grateful for this year is the fact that so far Silliman has managed to struggle through the pandemic without laying off any employees because of it. That is one way to make true the oft heard platitudes about “We’re all in this together.” Well, actually we’re not. The University is a community of privilege, and some of us are more privileged than others. Should my privileged status as “First Dude” mean that I can ignore the sufferings of people around us, the risks that daily they must take in order to do all the things that make our lives possible? Doesn’t my status require me to be more attentive to their needs, starting with the least of our brothers and sisters? If I must struggle with such questions, how about you? Wherever you are? If we don’t reexamine our responsibilities to love one another, how can we say we love Baby Jesus?
Walking through campus nowadays, I am struck by how empty it all is without you. Our beloved trees are still here, the buildings still stand, but the bulletin boards are mostly empty with scraps of messages pinned up last year. Food Services are only available for take-out orders, another sign of our diminished life together. To be sure, a lot is going on; and apparently, the digital learning programs are working fairly well. But they are no substitute for all of us being here and interacting normally. Social distance may be necessary to keep everyone as safe as possible, but it cannot help but confront us with the truth of just how much we need each other, and indeed, just how much we need a little Christmas. So, in a way that is more appropriate to Advent than to Christmas, we simply wait for your return.
Christmas in a time of COVID, where so many lovely traditions have been stripped away, is a challenge to our imaginations, an opportunity to think through what the birth of Baby Jesus should mean for expanding our love beyond our immediate families and friends, to embrace everyone whom Jesus is seeking to comfort through us, if only we will accept His invitation and find our own ways to cooperate.
Hope to see you soon!