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P500 ‘noche buena’ challenge

Editorial, Philippine Daily Inquirer /December 24, 2022

Diskarte” has been a word bandied about at this time of the year, especially these days when lean times, coupled with the inconveniences of the post-COVID recovery and soaring prices of basic commodities, have forced many families to dig into their stores of resilience and creativity to come up with a Christmas celebration worthy of memory.

Diskarte roughly means “making do,” the creative marshaling of strategies and money-saving tips to create a special occasion in the face of difficulties and shortfalls.

And indeed, diskarte is what government officials—as voiced by their supporters on social media—are saying ordinary Filipinos must exercise in these parlous times.

Perhaps to allay widespread anxiety and discontent, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) assured consumers that a budget of P500 is sufficient to meet the costs of the traditional “noche buena,” the dinner celebration on Christmas Eve and the midnight snack following the Mass later that evening.

The DTI’s “Noche buena budget shopping” guide prescribes the following: American ham (500 grams), P163; “Pinoy” pandesal (250 g), P23.50; keso (cheese, 200 g), P41.75; pasta (800 g) and spaghetti sauce (1 kg), P112.00; giniling (pork, 1/8), P31.25; and fruit cocktail (822 g) and Kremdensada (410 ml), P116.50. This P488 noche buena, according to the DTI, can feed a family of four or five. These are, to be sure, the components of the typical middle-class noche buena, though researchers say majority of poor Filipinos make do with simple Christmas dishes based on rice—including suman, puto, and kakanin. But such is the power of myth and aspirational imagination that the “traditional” dishes have attained the status of “must-haves,” without which a Filipino Christmas is deemed incomplete.

This may explain the raised eyebrows and skepticism of folks who reacted with disbelief at the audacity of a government agency claiming that such a slim budget is enough for a Christmas feast.

“We’re talking about noche buena, not an ordinary meal meant to satisfy our hunger,” one Twitter user posted. “What ingredients will go into that darn spaghetti?” said another online. “I challenge the DTI folks to eat spaghetti with just ground meat and just salt to add flavor. Let’s see if their Christmas will be truly happy!”

With hard times, Filipinos are well aware that they can ill afford the familiar trappings of the noche buena. But the DTI’s assurance of an “affordable” Christmas meal seems to have touched a raw nerve, given the government’s lackluster efforts to mitigate high prices and address gaps in the supply chain, while allocating billions in “confidential funds” for opaque purposes.

To defend herself, Trade Undersecretary Ruth Castelo, who suggested the P500 noche buena scheme, said it was simply meant to “provide a cheaper alternative for consumers.” By publicizing the possibility of a simpler, more austere Christmas feast, she said, government officials were simply acting out of the goodness of their hearts, to teach consumers about more affordable options.

But as if to rub salt on consumers’ raw sensibilities, SAGIP party list Rep. Rodante Marcoleta suggested, during the confirmation hearing of Department of Science and Technology Secretary Renato Solidum Jr., the production of food pills, such as those supposedly ingested by astronauts while in outer space, to allow poor families to survive.

“I’m thinking aloud,” said Marcoleta, “if we can invent [such pills] for our poor citizens who can subsist on them for months without starving.”

Perhaps to be polite, Solidum said the scientists in his department would look into it, but the public for the most part scoffed at the congressman not just for his ignorance (astronauts, it turns out, eat dehydrated food while in space, not food pills), but also for his insensitivity especially during this most beloved season.

This, noted this paper’s columnist Inez Ponce de Leon, is what is inherently evil in the call for diskarte. It seeks to absolve the government of its faults, putting “the onus of progress on the shoulders of citizens … a weaponized narrative to make people believe that dealing with problems is their obligation, and that the worsening problem is their fault.”

In a few hours, families all over the country will gather around their dining table to partake in a feast that takes place just once a year, in a celebration of faith, family, and togetherness. Whether costing P500 or more (or less), the traditional gathering is a sign that, despite the hard times and the insulting call for diskarte, unity in spirit and sentiment is the true gift of the season.

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