The Christmas Curse

I sighed and eyed the clock irritably. It was a few minutes to midnight, and soon, I would once again be subject to the Christmas curse. 

It’s August 31 here, in what once Dan Brown dubbed the gates of hell: the old, ugly, dirty city of Manila. I had lived here almost all of my life and felt doomed to die here, among the cat-sized sewer rats that greeted me after my daily graveyard shift in this ancient, dingy convenience store. But what always caused my soul to waste away a little more each year was when the clock struck midnight on September 1. The first day of the -ber months would mark the official start of Christmas celebrations in the Philippines, a festival of red and green tinsel that won’t stop until around January.

There was some pop song still playing from the store’s scratchy speakers, but that would soon change when the appointed time grew near. My eyes moved upwards, seeking mercy from the Heavenly Father, only to be greeted by a crumbling ceiling filled with holes wherein the broken down lines of the yellowing fluorescent lights peeked from. 

I sighed and muttered a few curse words under my breath, then smirked as I heard a kerplunk of various items on the counter. Looking down showed me a tired-looking woman in scrubs taking out her wallet and bringing out a couple of bills to pay for her purchases for the night: Fita crackers, a banana, and a bottle of Coke Zero.

“Good evening po, ma’am,” I began in my monotone as I started scanning her items. “Pauwi na kayo?”

I didn’t normally engage in small talk, but I was getting restless. I glanced at the cash register and saw that 12:00 was soon approaching, and I didn’t want to watch the transition, much less hear Jose Mari Chan croon so early in the morning.

The woman shrugged. “YB lang, tapos balik sa ospital.” She grinned at me, but I could see the pain in her eyes. “Pagbalik ko dun, Pasko na ulit.”

We looked at each other and, as if on cue, shared a sigh. It was as if we both knew what would happen once everyone’s calendars flipped the date; as customer service reps, it was us who would be most subject to the infliction of carols that would not stop until the day of the Three Kings. It was tradition, aural torture that would soon be followed by a nonstop barrage of candy canes, parols, and grinning faces exclaiming, “Merry Christmas!”

Just then, the music stopped, and with it, a split second silence. I looked mournfully at my companion, and she shrugged.

“Whenever I see girls and boys
Selling lanterns on the streets…”

“Patayin mo nga ‘yan,” she immediately ordered.

Dropping the thin plastic bag I was holding to place her items in, I immediately fumbled for the switch and turned the music off. The store seemed frozen in a kind of diorama, amidst the poorly stocked shelves and dirty white counters, and there was a period of blissful quietude. 

I took a deep breath and watched as the woman’s lethargic expression slowly gave way to a peaceful one. “‘Yan ang diwa ng Pasko,” she murmured, as she picked up her purchases and walked away.

A loud motorcycle passed by, and with it, the jingle of a bell, signifying the woman’s departure from the store. I watched her walk along the street towards the old cigarette vendor at the corner, then closed my eyes, enjoying the momentary solitude.

The bell rang once more, and I opened my eyes to see a bunch of obviously drunk young men file their way inside the convenience store. Their raucous laughter filled the little space, and their clumsy movements knocked a couple of chip bags on the floor. 

As I prayed that they won’t start vomiting on the floor, one of the drunkest of the group shouted towards me. “Ba’t walang music? Di ba Christmas na? Play those carols, DJ!”

I cast my eyes heavenward once more, but instead of angels, it was a scuttling spider that moved across my head. With a sigh, I turned the music on again.

“Whenever I see girls and boys
Selling lanterns on the streets…”

The boys yelled. “That’s my jam!,” cried the one who requested for the godforsaken music, and the whole lot of them started singing along, quite badly, to the undisputed Philippine King of Christmas Carols.

I took a deep breath and eyed the clock. Just another 120 days of this and I’d be free. But for now, Jose Mari Chan it is.

“Whenever there are people
Giving gifts exchanging cards
I believe that Christmas
Is truly in their hearts…”

Christmas in Our Hearts by Jose Mari Chan:

First written August 26, 2019.

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