Canto choir

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Jet-lagged by the 18-hour cross-Pacific flight, the wife and I dozed in the car from the airport — until scrawny kids warbled off-key carols, banging flattened bottle caps. “It’s the tambourine brigade,” I muttered.

These street troubadours cadge for a few coins. They signal, like those first star parol and belen, that Christmas is almost upon us. Ang Pasko ay sumapit…

More of these grimy, ill-nourished and school dropouts will surface in the run up to the Nativity. As in past Christmases, they’ll blend into the woodwork, unnoticed by most.

“This shall be a sign for you,” the angels sang, “You shall find an Infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in manger.”

Are these shabbily- clothed street musicians also a sign of us? Do the tinsel, the partying, and the gorging, over the holidays, keep us from reading, in these canto choirs, the “signs of the times”?
If we “open our shut-up hearts freely, we’ll discover they’re ‘hard as flint’, Jonathan Powers wrote in Scrooge is Here. “No steel ever struck (from them) generous fire. They remain secret, self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”

Christmas 2010 comes, as it did two millennia ago, to a “hard as flint” society. “There was oppression for those who were not friends of Tiberius Caesar,” noted the 1949 Wall Street Journal editorial, republished on every Christmas eve since.

Summary executions, as in Maguindanao, were rife. So was arbitrary detention, as in the Morong 43 case. Abortions probably run as high as 600,000 a year. “There was everywhere contempt for human life…What was a man for but to serve Caesar?”

Our Ceasars, Herods, Scrooges, and praetorian guards today haven’t changed. Ask Imelda Marcos or Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Then, and now, it’s the poor who bear the brunt.

The richest 20 percent of Filipinos consume 47 centavos out of every peso, Philippine Human Development Report 2009 reveals. The poorest 20 percent scrounge with seven centavos.

No one dies directly from starvation here. But “protein energy malnutrition ushers a bigger proportion of pre-school kids to early graves than in poorer Bangladesh or Kenya , World and Asian Development Bank found. And 463 of every 100,000 Filipinos suffer from TB — almost quadruple the Malaysian rate of 133.

Malnutrition opens floodgates to debilitating diseases, including blindness due to Vitamin A deficiency to energy-sapping anemia. It spawns a tragic cycle: ill-fed anemic mothers giving birth to shriveled children — who, in turn, will mother the next generation of dwarfed infants.

The 5th , 6th and 7th National Nutrition Surveys repeated the stark story of chronic hunger savaging, with little let up, this country’s foundation: children and breast-feeding mothers. “Shriveling away from hunger, however, is not the stuff of headlines.”

“Children should live past the age of five,” says the 2010 report Winning the Numbers, Losing the War. Decline in infant mortality rates here is obscenely slow, says this new study of Philippine progress towards achieving Millennium Development Goals.

Under-5 deaths for every 1,000 births is 32 here, United Nations Fund for Children notes. Compare that to Thailand’s 14.

“All children have the right to live,”writes Mayi L. Fabros. “But in the Philippines, large numbers, especially from indigent households and communities, start dying after they are born.”

If anything, Christmas is about children. Therefore, the national agenda should end obscene 37th month bonuses that government firm employees ladle for themselves or curb pork barrel for legislators.
Social Watch has noted that the Aquino administration has beefed up budgets for health, schools, agriculture, and environment.But more must be done.

Local governments, for example, must apply more of their Internal Revenue Allotments for social nets, rather than waiting sheds or basketball courts.

Do it now. “Christmas is the only time I know of when men and women seem, by one consent, to open their shut-up hearts freely,” Charles Dickens wrote in 1843.

A thin crust of Scrooges will always argue for keeping the loot. “You were always a good man of business,” Scrooge told the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley. “Business?” wailed the Christmas Past wraith, shaking his chains. “Mankind was my business… mercy.”

We do well to recall this true story by a Grade 1 teacher: A child always crouched below her desk during breaks. She checked. “She didn’t want us to see her eat breakfast — green papaya, soaked in salt and vinegar, wrapped in a plastic bag.” This is starvation by daily installment.

You bump into this vulnerable child everywhere. But at Christmas, some emerge as shabbily-clothed carolers at street corners. They should be in school. But poverty forces 33 out of every 100 to drop out before reaching Grade 6. And they know, from experience, that Christmas nets them larger tips.

“We must give of our time, sweat, talent, and, where possible, resources, to reach the needy. Otherwise, Christmas will elude our grasp.

As mystic poet Angelus Silesius insisted: “Even if Christ should be born a thousand times over in Bethlehem , as long as he is not born in your heart…you shall have been born to no purpose.”

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