Christmas is the biggest holiday in the Philippines. Filipinos start their Christmas countdowns as soon as the “ber” months hit. You’ll hear Christmas songs start playing in September on radio stations and some stores start putting out Christmas decorations even before Halloween.
Christmas decorations include the usual Christmas tree and lights, as well as the more Filipino Parol and Belen.
The Parol is a star-shaped Christmas lantern that represents the start that guided the three wisemen to Bethlehem on the night Jesus was born.
The Filipino Parol – image from http://knowledgeactivism.wordpress.com/page/5/
The simple parols can be made with Japanese rice-paper, cellophane and bamboo sticks, while the pricier versions are made up of capiz shells and glass and have lights inside them.
The Filipino Parol – image from http://blog.benetton.com/blog/the-parol-and-the-filipino-christmas/
The Belen is a tableau representing the nativity scene. Found in homes, churches, schools and some office buildings, the figures depict the moment after Christ’s birth when he is surrounded by the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, the three wise men, and the shepherds and their flock.
The Belen – image from Xavier School
Simbang Gabi (or Night Mass, also known as Misa de Gallo in Spanish) is celebrated in the Philippines, being that it is a predominantly Catholic country. Simbang Gabi is a novena of masses that begin on the 16th of December and end on Christmas eve. These masses begin as early as 3 AM, although some people opt to take the anticipated evening masses the night before, instead of waking up early.
After the early mass, some Filipinos buy traditional holiday breakfast meals from the vendors outside the church. This includes puto bumbong, a purple sticky rice steamed in bamboo tubes, served with a sprinkling of brown sugar, coconut and butter; and bibingka –rice flour cake cooked with coal burners. These treats are usually taken with hot chocolate, coffee or salabat (a hot ginger drink).
Caroling is also a big part of the Christmas celebration there. Church choirs, youth groups and even neighborhood kids go from house to house singing Christmas carols. Once their song has ended, they wait for the homeowners to open their doors and reward them with a few coins or peso bills.
Christmas Carolers in the Philippines
The biggest celebration happens on Christmas eve when Filipino families gather under one roof for Noche Buena, or the traditional evening feast.
I remember spending many Christmases back home eating lots of Filipino food and playing with my cousins while we wait for midnight to strike. Christmas Eve is one of the few nights we get to stay up late. At around eleven, we would gather around the Christmas tree and wait for the adults to distribute our presents. Then as soon as the clock struck twelve, we would unwrap our piles of presents. This included the presents which were left by Santa in our Christmas pillowcases.
Yup, you read that right. Instead of putting out Christmas stockings on the fireplace, we hung pillowcases by the window. The logic being that we would get more things since it was bigger (and we didn’t really know where to get Christmas stockings).
More than anything though, Christmas for Filipinos, is a time for family. Even when we’re thousands of miles away from our country of birth, we still take time to celebrate Christmas together.
Myself with my mom, sis, grandma and several aunts and cousins – December 1997
Well, at least that was the case a few years ago. I think the last time we celebrated Christmas as a complete family was in 2008. The years after that, due to conflicting schedules and conflicting family members, Christmas Eve was never quite as rowdy—or as happy.
This year is even worse, with family members leaving town for Christmas and family feuds that still have yet to be resolved. There are still presents under the tree and food to be shared, but with family members missing from the picture, Christmas won’t be quite as joyful.
I shall have to hope the next year will be better, and that I’ll get to celebrate a real Filipino Christmas again, with family members gathered all around.
What are your Christmas traditions?
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