THERE could not have been a worse mistake - going to Manila's biggest shopping mall with Christmas looming. It's a mistake that could easily have been avoided, but somehow the traffic jam on the way past SM City in suburban Quezon City seemed to draw the car ever onward and inward instead of past, as had been planned. And once there, there literally was no turning back. Wall-to-wall traffic, people, bonhomie and sales pitches, and things nobody in their right mind would buy but everybody does anyway, just to make the torture of the occasion that much more exquisite. Manila culture of the past decade has been built around shopping malls. Shoemart, a company that started with a little shoe shop in Manila four decades ago, somehow evolved into a department store and from there into a mall-building. It started a trend which has created nine monsters in the capital that contain under one roof everything ever needed in one lifetime. In air-conditioned splendour, shoppers can avoid the sticky heat of the city, the diesel fumes and the tropical downpours. Couple this with the Filipino spirit of loving a special occasion. Birthdays, anniversaries, holy events - all are celebrated with gusto of a magnitude any self-respecting earthquake would shudder at. Christmas is the age-old grandaddy of all celebrations and therefore has a special place in the Filipino heart. The Christmas music on PA systems in the malls used to start in November, but this year the first chords of Oh Holy Night began in mid-September. Which means it's a frenzy now, a dog-eat-dog world of gangs of children stalking the streets competing for carolling pesos and of media advertising at fever-pitch trying to snatch some - or better still, all - of the hard-earned Christmas bonuses. With all the commercialism, it's difficult not to be indoctrinated. One mall, in the exclusive suburb of Greenhills, has even got policemen dressed as Santa Claus to make sure that shoppers don't get too carried away. Their jolly demeanor as they hand sweets to children can't hide the bulge of the 9mm pistols in their pockets. At SM City, with too-loud entertainment to stir the multitude on into an even bigger festive frenzy, the throngs thicken and the shuffle down aisles gets more impossible. The queues at counters get longer and longer and soon the afternoon has stretched into evening and beyond. And still the shopping bag is near empty. In the midst of all the hubbub, it's unclear where sensitivity towards religious minorities stands. There are six million Muslims - about eight per cent of the population - in the Philippines. Last week they began celebrating Ramadan, a month of prayer and fasting. Muslims don't celebrate Christmas. Trying to imagine how a good Muslim would accomplish avoiding Christmas - and doing so during Ramadan in the Philippines - is difficult to imagine. The flashing lights in the shape of Christmas trees, the fake snow, the angel decorations, the nativity scenes - they are everywhere. So, what about a Muslim at SM City? On that fateful visit, the words 'Merry Christmas, Sir' were heard 27 times. Nineteen different carols were played over loudspeakers. The lights from decorations were blinding. The best part about the visit was getting out to the gridlocked sanity on the highway. Out there, heading home in pouring rain with diesel fumes seeping through the closed car windows and with the radio off, it was good to know that reality still existed.