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In the Philippines, revived traditions bring hope and gratitude in the new year

EMILY FENG, HOST:

Like many places around the globe, life in the Philippines was upended by the pandemic. It left people locked down and isolated. But this winter, seasonal merrymaking is returning in a big way. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on how Filipinos marked this change and are looking with hope to the new year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROL OF THE BELLS")

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The holiday season has been all the sweeter this year as Filipinos revived traditions they have not seen since December 2019. Amid resplendent trimmings, the Manila Symphony Orchestra helped the Peninsula Hotel relaunch its marquee holiday program, the Broadway tunes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Haul out the holly, put up the tree...

MCCARTHY: And roof-raising carols seem to say, as the emcee did, that this Yuletide tradition off the calendar the past two seasons...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED EMCEE: Is back big time.

MCCARTHY: Having choirs back in action has been cathartic, says Jonathan Velasco. He conducts the Ateneo Chamber Singers, composed of alumni and friends of Ateneo de Manila University.

JONATHAN VELASCO: This is a country known for its choirs. We are known for our voices. And suddenly, we were silenced by the pandemic. So with no masks we have the concert. It's really, really something.

MCCARTHY: The pandemic had consigned his internationally acclaimed ensemble to virtual arrangements that Velasco said were tedious. Finally, face-to-face rehearsals resumed. And performing their last concert of 2022, these amateur singers sounded for all the world like professionals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ATENEO CHAMBER SINGERS: (Singing) O'er the fields we go, laughing all the way, (laughter), bells on bobtail ring, making spirits bright, (laughter), what fun it is to ride and sing a sleighing song tonight...

MCCARTHY: Sacred music is their specialty.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ATENEO CHAMBER SINGERS: (Singing) His love will cherish me...

MCCARTHY: Velasco looks to 2023 as a time of creativity unleashed. He says Filipino concert goers defy any talk of recession and are flocking to box offices.

VELASCO: I'm talking tickets sold out, 3000-seater and 2000-plus-seater concert halls sold out. So that's how it looks like.

MCCARTHY: Tenor John Mojica is a founding member of the Ateneo Chamber Singers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN MOJICA: (Singing inaudibly).

MCCARTHY: He says the pandemic tested and matured him and that performing before an audience left him humbled and grateful.

MOJICA: I'm getting goosebumps right now just talking about it because just performing on stage, being with people, blending with another person in-person, experiencing it again makes you appreciate all of those things even more. We're still alive. We're enjoying life. We're here together.

MCCARTHY: The head of corporate sales for Philippine Airlines, Mojica and his family were felled by COVID. As 2023 kicks off, he is still guarded, but he feels his zest for life returning and compares today to 100 years ago.

MOJICA: That's why the Roaring Twenties were the Roaring Twenties because it was after a pandemic, as well. And everybody's just excited to party. So I'm excited for the Roaring Twenties. I'm recovering, but I'm taking baby steps. But, you know, I'm extremely excited about 2023.

MCCARTHY: For 20-year-old Angelika Estrella, the New Year is not about returning to pre-pandemic normality as much as it is a new beginning. COVID knocked the nation off course and sent her on a detour far from her original plan. When her university shuttered the classrooms, she joined millions of students in the global experiment of virtual learning.

ANGELIKA ESTRELLA: It is still hard for me to learn in an online class. And also, I got bored. I like socializing, and I also prefer to have a face-to-face class.

MCCARTHY: So she quit and now works as a call center agent, a job she says helps her family make ends meet and where she's vastly improved her English. But Estrella's desire to be an educator still burns in her. She's eager to resume her education in the coming months, this time in a classroom. She says when she sees her former classmates on social media graduated and working in their chosen fields, she feels left behind.

ESTRELLA: Yeah, that's why I'm a bit jealous. That's why I have, already, to continue my study because that's my dream, and also, that's what I want.

MCCARTHY: Her university classrooms are finally open again, and this young Filipina with a passion to teach schoolchildren is returning, hoping to move a step closer to her dream.

ESTRELLA: I just feel excited.

MCCARTHY: Because of all the things that will happen, she says, in 2023. Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.