Saturday, December 25, 2010

Highblood : Santa in Payatas

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: December 24, 2010

THIS CHRISTMAS I played Santa Claus, complete with a red and white suit and flowing beard, to 200 poor children in Payatas. It was a walk-on role with very few lines, just “Ho, Ho, Ho,” “Maligayang Pasko” and a few words about the North Pole.

I wanted to be credible to the children and not spoil the party. I was nervous putting on my costume. I was like a matador, I thought, putting on his “suit of lights” while the crowd roars in the arena above.

If Santa sits in the passenger seat near the driver, people see him. Everyone greets him like a pope or Manny Pacquiao. Children run along beside the car. No one seems to think it’s strange to see a grown man dressed as a child’s toy in Manila’s traffic. Our right front door, however, is broken due to an accident. I sat in the rear where no one could see me. We passed through crowds and traffic jams, but no one noticed.

The Payatas Christmas party took place in a smallish covered court on top of what was once a hill of garbage. It is now covered with grass and serves as the compound of the company converting garbage to electricity there. I wondered if it was the same hill of garbage that collapsed 10 years ago. Bodies were recovered, but the local people told me at the time that there were many more bodies, especially those of children, still buried in the garbage. The government denied this, but the people said the children were dead and buried in the garbage, no matter what the government denied. I once wrote a poem about these children:

The garbage hill collapsed,

Burying hundreds of children.

We found them, wiped slime from their faces

And lay them in rows

Arms crossed on their chests.

Later when we looked back,

They were holding tight to one another.

I remembered the dead children as I made my way in among the children at the Christmas party. I think I was a flop. I wished them merry Christmas, but there was no response. I told them about the polar bears who live with Santa up north, but they didn’t seem interested. I tried to get them to sing “Silent Night” in English or Tagalog with the help of the parents. Again, no response. Is it possible they don’t know about polar bears? I looked more closely at the small children right in front of me. Their eyes and mouths were wide open in what looked like amazement. All the time I looked at them they didn’t blink.

I thought I’d innovate a little, so I introduced my wife as Mrs. Santa Claus. I don’t think she was happy about that honor. Finally we gave out chocolate pops.

None of the children rushed to get one, none grabbed for one; one little boy even returned an extra pop. They were definitely interested, but not in songs, animal stories, not even particularly interested in chocolates. I had played my part. If they pelted me with their chocolate bar wrappings, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I was a flop.

“Goodbye, Santa,” Miss Princess and Miss Jing shouted as I got to the covered court entrance. I turned around and the children were all standing, cheering, waving their arms, and shouting,

“Goodbye Santa!”

“Merry Christmas, Santa,” Princess and Jing shouted.

There was another thunderous roar from the little children. I felt so good I almost went back to thank each of them.

I left them feeling better and wandered up the hill to a turn in the road from where I could see all of Payatas and all the way across the National Government Center to the Batasan. I thought of the children who may still be buried underfoot in the garbage. We have to be saddened by their short, sad lives, but surely they will have better Christmas parties than we have here. They’ll have God and His angels and not just an old guy who played Santa for a day.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is

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