Christmas this year officially started for my Filipino family on the first weekend of December. We were on our way home from gift shopping in one of Manila’s massive malls, distracting ourselves from the holiday traffic with trivial conversations and pop music on low. Cruising through our street that’s now adorned with shining parols (Philippine lanterns) on every block, we heard the faint sound of a familiar tune — a high-pitched instrumental quickly followed by a deep, imposing one. My dad, sitting in the passenger’s seat, turned up the volume. Although we didn’t need it, our hunch was confirmed when we heard the first line:
Whenever I see girls and boys selling lanterns on the street…
While Mariah Carey’s pop hit "All I Want For Christmas Is You" signals the holiday season in the West, halfway across the world in the Philippines, it’s this song that does: "Christmas in Our Hearts." As synonymous to the holiday as mistletoes and candy canes, it wouldn’t be Christmas without Jose Mari Chan’s tune playing on loop as procrastinators speed-shop last-minute gifts. Children sing it in school choirs and night carollers save it as their finale piece.
According to Spotify Asia, Chan's songs were streamed a total of 6.2 million times in January to August of 2014 to 2019. The number multiplies during the "ber months" – which Filipinos have long tagged as the start of their 4-month Christmas season – and is now at 27.8 million.
"Christmas in Our Hearts" — which fittingly, everyone knows by heart — is stuck in people’s heads by Christmas Day, along with the tranquil voice of now 74-year-old Chan.
No one expected it to be such an ear worm when it was first released in 1990, not even Chan, who also composed the song’s melody and co-wrote the lyrics. “I never thought that it would last this long,” he told VICE.
The singer recalled how his producer feared it would not get any airplay because it was too religious and sounded like a Christian song. “She quickly asked me to come up with a romantic Christmas song with a commercial appeal,” the singer said.
He did, and wrote the love song “A Perfect Christmas.” It was a modest hit. But not nearly as successful as “Christmas in Our Hearts,” which is essentially a musical nativity play, complete with a descriptive prologue-like intro. I remember the Child in the manger, as he sleeps, a line goes. Defying expectations, the song is now an enduring classic in Catholic-majority Philippines. Literally everyone, from children to grandparents, regardless of social class, memorise the song’s lyrics.
I was born in 1991, so I only know a world with “Christmas in Our Hearts” in it. Because it’s so ubiquitous, it’s hard to pinpoint when I first heard the song. Probably through a cassette tape in my dad’s stereo; he has a habit of blasting feel-good songs before mass every week, perhaps to get rid of the Sunday Scaries. Or maybe while I pretended to sleep at the back of our car, itching from the frou-frou dress and stockings my mom made me wear. I don’t really know. What I do have is a faded memory of watching Chan perform in our school gym.
I was in grade school and teachers, parents, and students were gathered in the open-air basketball court. Plastic chairs surrounded a makeshift stage where Chan sang. I vaguely remember him giving away roses to the crowd, but that part’s hazy too. Looking up, trying to see through adults much taller than me, it felt like I knew him even though we’ve never met.
Most Filipinos have the same connection. Without markers like the first snowfall, it’s photos of a perennially jolly Chan that Filipinos share on social media every Christmas. These memes trend all season long, starting long before December even hits.
“Bears hibernate for up to seven months. Jose Mari Chan hibernates up until the Ber months,” comedian Bogart the Explorer tweeted at midnight on the first day of September last year.
People have to wait until December 25 for Christmas Day, but Jose Mari Chan Day comes as early as September 1.
No one really knows when these posts started, but digital culture expert Fatima Gaw of the University of Sydney said they really took off in 2017. The reason for their virality is less of a mystery — “Christmas in Our Hearts” is just so meme-able.
First of all, the lyrics are catnip for witty Filipino netizens.
“The start of the song ‘Whenever I see girls and boys’ somehow begets completing the line,” Gaw said, adding that what makes the meme stick is how people can easily make it their own. Anyone can fill in the blanks, and thousands do every year.
Some go beyond captions and post videos. Last year, the #ChristmasInOurHeartsChallenge went viral and had people dancing to a remixed version of the song.
“It's like being in on the joke,” Gaw said.
And then, of course, there’s Chan himself, a personification of the holidays like Santa Claus or Father Christmas. It’s a role he has learned to embrace.
“All the memes that come out make me feel like the little drummer boy. The little drummer boy that heralds the advent of the Christmas season,” Chan said.
Instead of presents, he gifts merrymakers with live performances. In December 2015, Chan surprised unknowing diners in a mall food court for a TV segment. He walked around while serenading people with “Christmas in Our Hearts” and inviting them to sing along.
David Andrei de Mesa, 29, was there and recalled his shock after seeing the singer up close.
“At first, we thought it [was] just the mall speaker,” he told VICE. “When I heard the song, it [brought] back my childhood memories since ‘Christmas in Our Hearts’ … is [a] holiday staple that this country knows all too well.”
He uploaded a video of the surprise last year and the post, naturally, went viral.
“Children as young as four years old sing my Christmas song. What a blessing it is that young and old alike have made ‘Christmas in Our Hearts’ very much a part of their Yuletide celebration,” Chan said.
The crooner is, as expected, currently featured on TV, billboards, and online ads. During Christmas last year, Netflix dropped a cheeky video imagining what he does come December 26. Apparently, it’s playing VR games, dancing under a disco ball, and vegging out in front of the TV near a digital countdown to next September. The ad is one of the purest things on the internet and has scored thousands of shares.
It’s no wonder why.
Christmas is the most important holiday for many Filipinos and according to Gaw, “it’s that intimacy that [the meme] gives us that makes it nice to see every Christmas.”
Seeing it on our social media feeds or, in my case, hearing it through a car radio, is a simple gift we all share.