10 songs that capture the spirit of Pinoy Christmas

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From Gary Valenciano's "Pasko Na Sinta Ko" to the Sexbomb Dancers' "Wish Ko sa Pasko," these are songs of Filipino Christmas as much as they are songs of life. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It is hard to imagine any Christmas celebration without the songs that have lived forever in the occasion. Especially for a country with a highly musical tradition like the Philippines, the sights are inseparable from the sounds.

The flashy decorations of houses and offices, the customary gift-giving and food-sharing, the long lines at cashier counters, and the joyless hours spent in traffic jams always come with the never-ending music playlists in malls and public transportation, the young carollers with their grating voices and recycled instruments knocking on homes and car windows, and the indoor and outdoor parties whose idea of festivity is overusing bass-heavy amplifiers. Christmas is in the air as much as it is in the ear. And it is not surprising that the very indicator of its arrival is when the nearby shopping mall starts playing Mariah Carey or Jose Mari Chan at the official beginning of the season, on the first of September, on repeat.

The popular Filipino Christmas carols have always been reliable as reinforcements of tradition. Their catchiness ­— the words coming out of people’s mouths so naturally, so willingly — works like a spell, the hymns seeming to exist in perpetuity, undying, always alive. One learns these songs just by having listened to them as a kid. They are generally reminders of cheer, of the largeness of life, of possibly bright futures, although later on they can become admonitions of age, of the sad passing of time, of the inevitable swoop of mortality.

Ang Pasko ay Sumapit,” “Pasko na Naman,” “Sa Paskong Darating,” “Sa Maybahay ang Aming Bati, “Noche Buena,” and “Misa de Gallo” not just speak of Christmas as a special moment when Christ is born and reborn, his birth and rebirth signifying hope and humanity, but also serve as emotional markers that condition people to act with kindness, charity, and thoughtfulness, to love and, hopefully, feel loved. When all is said and done, it is good to have these songs as stable fixtures of life.

But thankfully Filipinos have other Christmas songs to turn to in a cruelly social season like this. Some of them are as chirpy as the carols, some of them have become pop classics as lovely downers, and some of them celebrate the occasion with such an effusive oomph and pragmatism that sometimes it feels sinful to associate them with the birth of a savior.

In these compositions the distinctly Filipino personalities are spilled — the sentimental and jolly, the religious and ridiculous, the abrasive and crazy, the naughty and nice — and the manifold Filipino spirit proudly bares its charms and contradictions. They are songs of Christmas as much as they are songs of life. When one looks for them on YouTube, many of the comments are by overseas Filipino workers from across the world, missing their families and playing these tunes for comfort, this being the easiest way for them to feel home.

Needless to say, all of these songs are singable, each with its characteristic appeal and attitude, each with its ability to cut across a variety of emotions and in its totality reveal lives brought together by the Yuletide season under its cloud of well-intentioned optimism. They have all been staples of radio airplay, at a time when radio was everywhere and indispensable, and for this reason they also carry with them memories of a not-so-distant past.

“Kumukutikutitap” (Ryan Cayabyab)

This collaboration between Ryan Cayabyab and Jose Javier Reyes is proof of how beautiful and supple the Filipino language is, with how the syllables and spaces dance feverishly forward, and how the immediate and sparkling visuals conjured by the words frolic with the sonic pleasures dripping from every line and melody. It is structured and layered like a big musical number, and as such, it bursts with life and warmth and energy, like moving from one intricate production set to another every stanza. Cayabyab’s genius is to make the complex seem easy, and singing “Kumukutikutitap” is as thrilling as hearing it.

“Himig ng Pasko” (APO Hiking Society)

In one simple line that opens the song, “Malamig ang simoy ng hangin/Kay saya ng bawat damdamin,” the mood is quickly set: it is Christmas soon enough. But why feel sad? Why feel alone all of a sudden? The talent of Jim Paredes, Danny Javier, and Boboy Garovillo rests not on loud, lofty displays of sentiment but on the intense discreteness of gestures, on the cordial companionship one feels upon hearing their compositions. And “Himig ng Pasko” feels like a hand on one’s back, comforting in its familiarity, reassuring in its mundaneness. Its seeming sleepiness is a deceit, for when it goes, “May awit ang simoy ng hangin,” the song comes alive sweetly, and an early reminder of Christmas is not a bad idea after all.

“Christmas in Our Hearts” (Jose Mari Chan and Liza Chan)

Jose Mari Chan is that rare Filipino recording artist who is impossible to hate, and his hits over the decades have constantly reflected this ridiculously nice personality, the very picture of pleasantness he has kept well until now that he is in his 70s. This probably makes him the most qualified person to write and sing what would turn out to be the immortal Filipino Christmas anthem of recent times. It is just a few years shy of 30 — and there have been meaningful Christmases before then for sure — but there is no overstating the popular and cultural impact of “Christmas in Our Hearts” on the Filipino psyche, how the season begins and closes with it, and how this simple song, with a simple melody and simple message, has become the Filipino collective soul, bearing both the happy and sad ends of it.

“Boogie Woogie Christmas Day” (VST & Co.)

VST & Co. take their disco seriously. The title track from their 1979 Christmas record is a wonderful splash of sunshine that loops one Taglish verse to delightful effect, with the horns and harmonies surrounding and lilting it. “Boogie Woogie Christmas Day” brings back memories of long hair and bell-bottoms, of old-school dance parties and retro cars, a beautiful time bottled in one hell of a groove.

“Fruitcake” (Eraserheads)

Fruitcake, brandy, and Star margarine (or as Ely Buendia pronounces it the way kids did in the ‘90s: mar-ja-reen) are not the usual stuff on Filipino Christmas tables, but Eraserheads have always had a way of making disparities work. It is funny because it is serious (“There are b-sides to every story/If you decide to have some fun”) and because it references Jesus without mentioning his name (“It’s the season for being happy/But the reason is dead and gone”). It is also funny because it also seems tired of it all (“Everybody, everywhere, people do you really care/Christmastime has once again arrived”). Perhaps it is not really funny but just sad. Nevertheless, it fits the band’s image perfectly — particularly the sentiments seldom spoken out of politeness — and thankfully the hooks are raring to be yelled (“So take a bite! It’s all right!”).

“Christmas Bonus” (Aegis)

“Christmas Bonus” is Aegis’ plea to companies that are thinking twice about giving their employees their financial rewards for the holiday season. One can choose to read the song more deeply, especially how it reveals the complexities of working-class struggle made evident by a capitalist and post-colonial tradition like Christmas, and the extent to which a worker has reached a point that bonuses have to be demanded (“Kaya’t ibigay niyo na!”). But one can also revel in its in-your-face-ness, in the direct and undisguised way it voices a major concern at this time of the year (“Sa tuwing darating ang Kapaskuhan/Ang Christmas bonus, ating inaasahan”), the truth in its correlation between money and happiness (“Nang maging maligaya tayong lahat/Sa araw ng Pasko”). The song just hammers that last point out until it fades, and that is more than enough.

“Wish ko sa Pasko" (Sexbomb Girls)

The gift of Sexbomb Girls is their lack of subtlety. There are many moments in “Wish ko sa Pasko” in which the sexual innuendoes could have been icky and inappropriate, but the inclination to tease works wonders and is in fact what makes it special as a Christmas song. This subversiveness can be easily taken for granted, especially since it is cleverly written and arranged, a love song littered with nuances of wanting to have it, with the hopeless romantic female embodied by Rochelle Pangilinan being vocal about her desires and frustrations. It seamlessly incorporates Christmas elements (simbang gabi, Santa Claus, puto bumbong, and bibingka) into its Yuletide wish (“Wish ko sa Pasko/Ikaw na ang Papa ko) and the result is fabulous. Catchy, sexy, upbeat, funny, sincere: what more is there to ask?

“Sana Ngayong Pasko” (Ariel Rivera)

Like Jose Mari Chan and Basil Valdez before him, Ariel Rivera simply opens his mouth to sing and a universe of emotions, so strong and deep in their effect, is conveyed. His baritone is rich and full, and when he reaches the bridge of his songs and raises the register, it can be emotionally overwhelming, sometimes downright crushing (“Minsan Lang Kita Iibigin”). “Sana Ngayong Pasko” is similar to his popular ballads — straightforward yearnings of a man pining for someone — and the clarity of its setting and predicament (longing for someone far away at Christmastime, a loved one who is not necessarily a paramour) never fails to envelop the listener in sadness. Rivera does not sugar-coat the throbbing pain: He confronts it. When he sings, “At kahit wala ka na/Nangangarap at umaasa pa rin ako,” it sounds crazy, but all too familiar.

“Pasko Na Sinta Ko” (Gary Valenciano)

Calling it the quintessential Filipino Christmas love song is not a stretch, considering how even with the use of “sinta” in the title, a word rarely used these days colloquially, the sentiment does not seem to age. Like all classics, “Pasko Na Sinta Ko” is timely and timeless at the same time. Composed by Francis Dandan with lyrics by Aurelio Estanislao, the version popularized by Gary Valenciano is dramatic perfection, from the modest piano accompaniment and overall arrangement to the heartfelt simplicity of the words and the way Valenciano delivers them softly, almost hushedly, as though reeling from pain. It brims with raw, genuine feeling, making it not just a song to relate to but a song one lives, a song that lingers so long it becomes a companion. It mourns as much as it hopes, and the coming of Christmas without one’s significant other only intensifies the melancholy.

“Miss Kita Kung Christmas” (Susan Fuentes)

The Filipino word for “miss” is “pangungulila” — such a cumbersome word that if one wants to say “I miss you,” rarely does one hear “Nangungulila ako sa iyo” but “Miss kita,” which is much more acceptable, and perhaps even more romantic. In this Susan Fuentes classic, the Visayan singer uses both words effortlessly, and her articulation of missing someone is fascinating: “Kahit nasaan ako/Papaling-paling ng tingin/Walang tulad mo/Ang nakapagtataka’y maraming nakahihigit sa iyo” — only to hear that this someone already has someone else: “Hirap niyan, mayro’n ka nang iba.” It feels like a soundtrack to a melodramatic movie whose female lead is often seen walking across the city, aimlessly, in her elegant clothes. This owes to the transportive quality of Fuentes’ voice, its textural timbre, evoking a time in the past that can only be gleaned from sepia photos and grainy videos as these memories remain strong and vivid at present. “Miss Kita Kung Christmas” sends light and love despite its emotional baggage, and it is in this generous spirit of the season that it continues to live.