Why Jose Mari Chan Matters

And how ‘Christmas In Our Hearts’ endures

Growing up, my Jose Mari Chan wasn’t Jose Mari Chan. We never even owned any of his albums. The harbinger of Christmas doom in our household wasn’t the ominous synth chords of girls and boys selling lanterns in the streets…it was the dulcet choral assault called Ryan Cayabyab’s “Kumukutikutitap.

But of course, even without actually owning the album, one knows Jose Mari Chan’s “Christmas In Our Hearts” by heart. Especially now that the -ber months have arrived, and every mall, store, and elevator is rushing to put Mr. Chan back on the rotation where he belongs: the Pinoy Christmas Torture OST — a playlist that’s seemingly made up of only a clutch of songs but somehow manages to last for three months.

“The pop song may change in years and years, but the Christmas genre, that melody is universal,” Chan told the Asian Journal sagely back in 2012.

The article also notes: “Chan revealed that with the tremendous success of Christmas in Our Hearts, he realized that Christmas music is his niche.”

Despite feeling like it’s been around since forever, it’s a little strange to realize that “Christmas In Our Hearts” is actually a Nineties song. But it’s the Christmas music of our time, looming above its paler subjects: Cayabyab. Pamasko ng mga Bituin. Pasko na, Sinta Ko.” Disco/acoustic/bossa nova remakes and remixes of the gold standards. Little carolers with homemade tambourines, screaming, “Tenkyu! Tenkyu! Ang babait ninyo, tenkyu!” It’s become part of our generational DNA, a monolith of merrymaking now pilloried by memes that poke fun at Christmas carols’ benevolent god-emperor.

Five years ago, writing for Slate, Nathan Heller reflected on our love-hate relationship with the same Christmas songs we play year after year. “It is tempting to dismiss carols as a symptom of seasonal hype, of ‘the commercialization of Christmas,’ or of other pestilences of the modern soul,” he wrote. “Actually, their excesses are the opposite of modern. Christmas carols have always been the product of hype and invented ritual, nurturing false nostalgia almost from the start.”

Nostalgia — whether manufactured, as Heller claims, or genuine, or played for laughs, or deconstructed into social media memes — is the energy source that powers Jose Mari Chan’s ubiquity, renewing itself year upon year upon year, a jeepney that’s miraculously found a way to run on its own exhaust. And we’re more than happy to go along for the ride.

We may groan. We may complain. We may make memes. We may wring our hands and ask, “But, but, where are all the new, original Christmas songs?” But “Christmas In Our Hearts” will outlast us all.

It will definitely outlast even Jose Mari Chan himself. In an interview with Rappler’s Precious del Valle last year, he sadly noted, “I want to sing new songs, I have many many new compositions but [the response is] usually just half-hearted. I always want to perform new songs para hindi magsawa yung mga tao, but no e, they still prefer the old ones.”