CAROLING, GOVERNANCE, AND THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
Filipinos are now reviving activities and traditions that were prohibited during the height of the pandemic,
such as caroling and other Christmas traditions, after more than two years.
By Frederick N. Castillo
Ang Pasko ay sumapit Tayo ay mangagsiawit Ng magagandang himig Dahil sa Diyos ay pag-ibig Nang si Kristo ay isilang May tatlong haring nagsidalaw At ang bawat isa Ay nagsipaghandog ng tanging alay.
The words are definitely familiar to us, right? How about this one: Tayo na, giliw, magsalo na tayo Mayroon na tayong tinapay at keso Di ba Noche Buena sa gabing ito At bukas ay araw ng Pasko. Undoubtedly, these words are likewise familiar, aren’t they? But, the following could be the clincher… Whenever I see girls and boys Selling lanterns on the street I remember the child In the manger as He sleeps Wherever there are people Giving gifts exchanging cards I believe that Christmas Is truly in their hearts.
CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF CHRISTMAS CAROLS
Clearly, these iconic Filipino Christmas carols, as well as those from the West, get airtime as early as the first day of September and eventually dominate the airwaves (and in today’s generation, audio streaming sites) as the holiday season approaches. Given that the Philippines is known globally as the country with the longest Christmas celebration, all of us can’t get enough of these songs that represent everything that makes us feel good during this most wonderful time of the year. And yes, these tunes have actually taken on a new life with their being sung live, especially on the streets, through the practice of caroling. Caroling typically involves a group of individuals of different musical/singing abilities going from one house to another (or any other location where there are people), singing a medley of Christmas carols, and who may or may not receive a certain amount of money or, on a few occasions, goods (especially small food items) in exchange for their “performance.” Thereafter, such a gesture from and generosity of anybody in the household will be serenaded with a short signature musical line of gratitude: “Thank you, thank you, ang babait ninyo (such kind souls), thank you.” Unfortunately, those who are unable to give something for various reasons (typically shouting “patawad” (sorry) are, on occasion, made fun of through another short iconic line: “Thank you, thank you, ang babarat ninyo (such cheapskates), thank you.”
The musical performance of carolers could be as simple as singing to the accompaniment of improvised musical instruments (e.g., drums made from old tin cans, tambourines made out of flattened bottle caps, toy maracas), which is quite popular among children; or as elaborate as using the latest electric guitars, keyboards, and portable amplifiers, with the singers actually giving professional performers a run for their money. Of course, adding to the fun and festive nature of this tradition, particularly among children, are the notso-accurate lyrics that carolers belt out with gusto.
Indeed, caroling is as Filipino as Simbang Gabi, noche buena, and everyone’s favorite puto bumbong in terms of Christmas tradition. But just when did the practice of caroling in the country begin? Historians and music scholars are relatively unsure when this tradition started, although they are pretty much certain that it can be traced to the Spanish colonization of the country, particularly when the villancico was introduced in the country.
Villancico is a musical genre from the Iberian Peninsula (and later, Latin America) that was popular from the Renaissance era to about the 18th century. This musical form is typically performed during various religious feast days of the Catholic Church, including Christmas, although the use of this term in the 20th century is restricted to Spanish Christmas carols.
With the passage of time, it is said that the villancico evolved and came to be generally associated with Christmas activities, including the singing of Christmas carols. Although the lyrics were in Spanish, Filipino composers eventually adapted the genre and introduced Filipino versions of the villancico. It was only a matter of time before these religious songs, previously exclusive to the Catholic Church, were brought out to the streets in the form of present-day caroling.
Undoubtedly, caroling and carolers singing our favorite Yuletide tunes are clear reminders of the Christmas season in the country. Not even armed conflicts, economic hardships, and even authoritarian rule (i.e., Martial Law) could prevent Filipinos from continuing and being part of this tradition. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the closest that caroling had been put under some semblance of “control” is through several laws, ordinances, and regulations issued by the national and local governments, and even some neighborhood or village associations.
In 2007, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) clarified that caroling, as a form of solicitation during the Christmas season, does not require a permit from the department. Although Presidential Decree No. 1564 (Solicitation Permit Law), the Administrative Code of 1987, and Executive Order No. 24 (series of 2001) generally mandate the DSWD to regulate the solicitation activities of individuals and corporations, the department stated that local governments, guided by the various related provisions of Republic Act No. 7160 (Local Government Code of 1991), also have the right to issue their own ordinances on activities such as caroling.
Accordingly, cities and municipalities nationwide have, in one way or another, passed ordinances regulating the conduct of caroling activities, including the aspects pertaining to the hours covered, places where carolers can go, age of carolers, and prohibition of minors from joining such activities. Other ordinances, such as Cebu City’s anti-mendicancy ordinance, specifically prohibit children from begging for alms in the guise of caroling on the streets and public utility vehicles. Neighborhood and village associations have likewise implemented regulations pertaining to caroling in their respective areas. Specific reasons for implementing such guidelines are primarily related to peace and order matters, including the prevention of alleged “noise” that disturb residents, nonresidents roaming around neighborhoods, especially at night, and criminal elements and gangs from using caroling as a front to victimize residents. Hence, carolers are often required to obtain permits from barangay or neighborhood association offices.
THEN CAME COVID-19…
Unfortunately, laws and ordinances were not the actual threat against the tradition of caroling being discontinued. What regulations could not completely control, the COVID-19 pandemic easily did. Indeed, the pandemic has changed our everyday lives, including how we celebrate Christmas. Although we are currently heading back to a semblance of normalcy, given the continuously improving COVID-19 situation nationwide, everything was completely different and highly restricted since the start of the pandemic.
From mid-March 2020 to as recent as mid-2022, the Philippines was under different forms of community quarantine (i.e., lockdowns), restricting all non-essential activities, including caroling and other Christmas-related activities and gatherings, with the primary purpose of preventing the transmission of the virus. As part of the quarantine measures, the national and local governments implemented regulations and ordinances, specifically those that prevent mass gatherings, impose curfews, mandate the wearing of face masks and (for a time) face shields, closure of malls and other similar establishments, and stay-at-home orders for those under 18 years old, senior citizens, and individuals with comorbidities.
The Valenzuela City Council, for instance, passed the Bawal Muna Caroling Ordinance, which banned caroling from December 1, 2020 to January 4, 2021. The ordinance imposed a Php5,000 fine and/or community service for violators. For his part, thenCebu City Mayor Edgardo Labella in early November 2020 issued an executive order prohibiting street caroling in the city all throughout the holiday season for that year.
This was on top of the existing city ordinance that prohibits street caroling unless covered by a permit from the mayor’s office. Local governments continued to impose similar restrictions in the following year. For instance, Dasmariñas, Cavite Mayor Jennifer Barzaga signed in December 2021 an executive order banning caroling during the Christmas season, and providing penalties for such.
COVID-19-induced restrictions, however, did not last very long, as the condition began to improve in late 2021. In November 2021, the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) announced that Christmas caroling will be allowed in areas under Alert Level 2—the second-lowest in a five-level alert system. For its part, the Department of Health (DOH) clarified that as there were no specific national governmentimposed restrictions against caroling, it was up to local government units to come up with updated guidelines based on their local situations. The department also still encouraged online or virtual caroling.
Given that even most work and school activities were conducted online during the height of the pandemic, it was naturally expected that caroling and other related activities were prohibited as well. But true to the innovativeness and creativity of Filipinos, the pandemic failed to completely stop caroling. Similar to other undertakings that could not be held in person owing to the lockdown measures, caroling inevitably continued online, using Zoom and other online platforms, thereby continuing this Yuletide tradition, albeit on a limited basis. Despite the limitations, carolers exerted efforts to keep the Christmas spirit alive amidst the challenging situation, and ensured that Filipinos will still enjoy and (possibly) sing along to these tunes while staying safe inside their respective homes.
With the COVID-19 situation in the country continuously improving, many of the restrictions previously imposed in the last two years have been gradually lifted, and Filipinos are beginning to return to a semblance of their normal prepandemic lives. And after over two years of “deprivation,” many are also re-engaging in endeavors and traditions that were subjected to restrictions at the height of the pandemic, including caroling and other Christmas traditions. Indeed, everyone is optimistic that the sights and sounds (especially of carolers and caroling) of the holiday season are not only back but are here to stay.