Being mostly Catholics, Filipinos start a novena (a series of nine masses) on December 16th. The masses are part of the cherished religious tradition of Simbang Gabi, which literally means “Night Worship.” It’s an accomplishment to attend all nine masses!
Filipinos go to church at four o’clock in the morning and afterward have breakfast together. A traditional drink during this season is a warm ginger tea called salabat and a traditional treat is a flat but thick yellow rice cake called bibingka.
PASKO: CHRISTMAS IN THE PHILIPPINES
The Tagalog word Pasko derives from the Spanish word Pascua. Although the word Pascua means Easter, Pascua de Navidad refers to Christmas.
The Philippines is known for having the world’s longest Christmas season. The four months that end with the syllable –ber are considered Christmas months, which is why stores and households start playing carols on the first day of September! And the holiday season extends beyond December 31st. It doesn’t end until the Feast of the Epiphany or Three Kings (Tatlong Hari) which falls around January 6.
If Mexico has piñatas, the Philippines has its parol. Of course, a parol is not something to hit with a stick. It is a Christmas lantern, most commonly in the shape of a five-pointed star. The bamboo or rattan frame is covered with rice paper, tissue or cellophane. Almost every family either builds or buys one to hang by the window or door. Shopping malls construct giant versions of parol. Traditionally, a candle was placed inside for light to shine through; for safety reasons, people now use bulbs or even a flashlight.
Families, schools and other places also display a creche or nativity scene called belen. Christmas trees made of plastic are decorated with lights, tinsel and balls.
The Tagalog word for gift is regalo, but Filipinos have a special word for “Christmas gift” — pamasko. The Filipino version of Secret Santa is called Monito Monita or Kris Kringle. Students in their classes and office workers all hold gift exchanges during the Christmas season. Children receive fresh bills of money called aginaldo, usually when they visit their godparents and elderly relatives on Christmas morning.
On Christmas Eve (Bisperas ng Pasko), a few Filipino towns commemorate Joseph and Mary’s search for a place to stay with a reenactment called panunuluyan, a tradition very similar to the Mexican posadas. What every Filipino looks forward to is Noche Buena, the family dinner after the midnight mass.
Christmas morning is the time for visiting relatives. Filipinos wear new if not their best clothes. Children do mano, which is kissing or bringing to their forehead the hand of an elderly person. This is when they receive their pamasko, certainly aguinaldo from godfathers and godmothers. Christmas lunch and Christmas dinner are with family.
They say nothing will ever dampen the Filipino spirit, more so, their Christmas spirit. Even if one is busy as a bee or money-strapped, Filipinos find a way to celebrate this season, which is oftentimes the highlight of the year.
Christmas in the Philippines may be the longest holiday celebration in the world1. As soon as the “ber”2 months kick in you see a transition to a more festive mood which lasts until January 6, the Feast of Epiphany or Three Kings. As early as September, colorful decorations line up the streets, Christmas carols start playing on the radio and everyone just brightens up with holiday cheer. Imagine being in this state for more than 4 months? There’s nothing quite like it.
It will begin to look a lot like Christmas
A lot of the Christmas traditions in the Philippines are a fusion of the two cultures that influenced the country most – Spain and the USA. As someone described the Philippines, “it spent 300 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood.”
Parol being sold on the streets normally signals the start of the season. Parol is a Spanish term for lantern lighting up homes during this holiday. The parol represents the Star of Betlehem, which guided the Three Kings to find the stable where Jesus Christ was born. This is an iconic Christmas symbol in the Philippines and it can range from a very simple 5-pointed star made from Japanese paper to elaborate designs with LED lights. To celebrate this, there is even a Giant Lantern Festival held annually on the last Saturday before Christmas Eve in San Fernando, Pampanga.
There is also the belen, the Spanish term for Betlehem. It is a tableau depicting the scene of Nativity with the baby Jesus, Joseph and Mary, the Three Kings and the animals at the stable are all present with the Star of Betlehem shining on them.
Although the Spanish influence is quite evident, one cannot deny that American customs are quite common too. A Christmas tree is a usual decoration in every Filipino home. In the absence of pine trees, most people use artificial trees adorned with plastic poinsettias and other colorful designs. Santa Claus is famous and well loved by the kids. You can see Santa with his elves in every mall. Oftentimes, children would line up to sit on Santa’s lap and have a picture taken with him.
9 Mornings of Christmas
The country is pre-dominantly Catholic, hence there are traditions aligned with the Catholic faith. One of this is Misa De Gallo or Simbang Gabi, which literally translates to rooster’s mass. It consists of 9 early morning masses from December 16 to 24. It is a sacrifice to be up and about at 4 in the morning but Filipinos flock to the church to celebrate this prelude to Christmas day through the Holy Eucharist. The elders say that if you complete the 9 Simbang Gabi, you get to make a wish. Now that is a motivation.
It isn’t a celebration without food
Filipinos love food. We even say hello to people by asking, “Have you eaten?” It is no wonder that after mass, the first thing a lot of Filipinos do is to eat. No Simbang Gabi is complete without the local delicacies like Puto Bumbong and Bibingka. Puto Bumbong is a distinct violet dessert made of sticky rice (puto) steamed in bamboo tubes (bumbong) topped with butter and coconut shredding. Bibingka is a spongy cake made from glutinous rice, oftentimes topped with cheese and salted egg. The smell of these freshly cooked delicacies will surely make one salivate and head out to the nearest stall to buy. Now, these food items are being sold even inside the malls making it very convenient to buy.
Everything boils down to family
Filipinos value strong family ties and the Christmas season brings this out even further. Most Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) even go home to be with their families during Christmas. For some who cannot make it back home, they make it a point to send money to their relatives as gift and aid to finance holiday expenses.
The highlight of the celebration is Noche Buena where the family comes together to share a good meal on Christmas Eve. Queso de bola (ball of cheese) and sweetened ham are usually served. When the clock strikes 12 midnight, the family then proceeds with gift giving. Everyone gets excited to finally unwrap the gifts that have been sitting under the Christmas tree. Since Filipinos regard Christmas as a celebration especially made for kids, the children usually get the grandest gifts.
Christmas day is oftentimes spent for grand family reunions where one gets to see their grandparents, uncles and cousins. The gift giving is extended and a child can expect to receive pamasko/aguinaldo (gifts in the form of cash) from their godparents.
Even in the changing times, one thing remains. Filipinos will always find a way to celebrate Christmas with their beloved families.
“Christmas in the Philippines – The World’s Longest Christmas Season” was written by Eunice Anne Santos. Eunice is from the sunny Philippines. She is an advertising practitioner who moonlights as an events planner. She keeps a blog at www.ohyeahthislifeofmine.wordpress.com where she dubs herself as a Virtual Extrovert.