I didn’t grow up singing any Chamorro Christmas songs. There was little to no Chamorro in my house growing up in Mangilao. We celebrated Christmas, but didn’t do it in the way that many Chamorros do it. Where it involves a bilen, the creation of a nativity scene, the making of bunelos dagu, or the singing of Chamorro Christmas songs, the majority of which are Catholic in nature. So learning about Chamorro Christmas experiences, the stereotypical, more general kind is bewildering in a way. I am coming into traditions that people who sometimes know far less Chamorro language than I do and much much less Chamorro knowledge or history than I do, know more intimately than I do. To them these experiences are commonplace, are normal, are kind of boring. For me they are interesting. While for most of my students the idea of gathering material for a bilen is irritating and frustrating, it is intriguing to me. Something I would like to do one day, not because of any affection for the nativity scene, but because it would be fun walking around the jungle looking for moss and sticks to build something with my kids.
As part of the UOG Chamorro classes, each December, we organize Puengen Minagof Nochebuena, a central part of which is the singing of Chamorro Christmas songs. The first time I participated in this, I was lost, knowing none of the songs, except for those that were translated from English Christmas songs that I was familiar with. Now, after several years, I know a couple songs by heart and can sing along in a choir with others. This week I joined the Young Men’s League of Guam or YMLG or Inetnon Lalahin Guahan and sang for the sick in GMH. It was lots of fun. I got to join others in belting out a variety of songs, the diversity of which, reminded me of something which always bugs me this time of year.
The “holiday” season nowadays is familiar to all. It is something now embedded into the collective consciousness here. Some of it is spurned on by the same capitalistic fervor that drives other places. Some of it is spurned on by a colonial and Americanizing desire. But ultimately, during the last two months of the year we have a series of rituals and ceremonies that are not intimately tied to people here, but have only been so for a few generations. Thanksgiving was not celebrated by Chamorros as a people prior to World War II. Thanksgiving was something that was taught in schools and was promoted by the US Navy, but it wasn’t something that stopped or dictated the rhythm of Chamorro life. Students were forced to celebrate it in schools, dressing up, even before the war as pilgrims and native Americans. Christmas as we celebrate it today is almost totally unfamiliar to the “Christmas” celebrations of the past. Christmas was primarily a religious celebration and the commercialism and the materialism that inundates life today was absent primarily because of the lack of money on the island. Those wanting to Americanize would try to copy the way things were celebrated in the US, but for most Chamorros, that was a hollow, empty celebration, that was missing what Christmas is supposed to be about, the celebration of Christ’s birth.
I find it both fascinating and depressing as to how fast Chamorros shifted their entire cognitive calendar not to match their own culture, their own history, their own values, but simply to match the way things are done in the US, as part of their desire to assimilate, to prove that they were worthy wards, that they were good and loyal enough to be minor Americans. This is a discussion that few people want to have because of the way it opens up things they would rather take for granted and rather not think about. You can argue that the “spirit” of Christmas is in line with the Chamorro values of gineftao and giving. You can argue that celebrating Christ’s birth is important because of that being a founding myth in Christianity and Catholicism. All of those things can be given, can be accepted. But why take Christmas songs from other places? I understand that certain songs come into Guam via religious beliefs, but why would people on Guam sing songs about snow? Songs about winter wonderlands? Why do people in Guam import and buy Christmas trees from the states? These things only make sense in a rather pathetic assimilationist context. They only make sense if we see Chamorros not really thinking about anything but just wanting to copy American style, do American things, pretend and act like they are Americans.
This is why, I am not sure how I feel about the translation of those ridiculous songs into Chamorro. On the one hand I don’t like it because it is just another way of bringing in colonizing artifacts, but with more local flavor. It is way of ingesting colonialism, but giving it a nice local touch so it doesn’t feel as bitter or silly. But, as someone who translates lots of songs that have nothing to do with Chamorro culture, history or language into Chamorro, the taking of those songs and making them Chamorro is also exciting and interesting. When I look at many of these songs that have been translated, they rework the imagery, the metaphors, the contexts and make them fit within a Chamorro tradition or framework. For example, many of them abandon their original scenery of snow or Christmas elsewhere and focus on Chamorro familial closeness and gatherings. Some however resist this shifting, such as the one below, “Si Rudof” a Chamorro version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. While the story of Santa and Reindeer is just plain stupid, especially when people try to fit it in a Christian framework when Santa has more to do with Odin than Saint Nicolas, I have to admit that just singing a familiar song in Chamorro and seeing the language wrap around it is fun.
Here are the lyrics below, translated by Joe Peredo.
(Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer) Trinanslåda: J. Peredo
Rudof agaga' i gui'eng-mu
lålamlam kada puengi,
ya kada ma attan i gui'eng-mu,
sigi hao di ma kasse,
todu i mangga'chong-mu,
sigi hao di ma kasse,
sa' hågu ha' nai na binådu,
sasahnge yan na'ma'se'.
Pues un chi'op na puengi,
måtto si Santa Klos,
ha faisen si Ru-dot-fu,
para u giha i karetan gigipu,
Manmagof todu i binådu,
ya ma guaiya ta'lo si Rudof,
put i gui'eng-ña ni kulot agaga',
siempre ma onra hao gi manmamaila'.