Christmas in the Philippines is known to be the longest celebration of the Christmas season in the world. Once the “ber” months start, playing Christmas songs and putting up Christmas decorations is already acceptable.
In 2013, I spent my first Christmas away from home and I was totally in culture shock. In Singapore, Chinese New Year is the most important celebration due to majority of the population being Chinese. I was very surprised that on Christmas eve, people prefer to go out with their friends or leave the country. Whereas in the Philippines, Christmas eve is a time for the family and everybody is struggling to go travel, no matter how far, just to celebrate Christmas at home.
Truly, there is no place like home and there is no Christmas celebration like the Philippines’. Here are some of the interesting characteristics of celebrating Christmas in the Philippines.
Christmas starts when the ‘ber’ months start
‘Ber’ months mean September, October, November and December. So technically, the Christmas season starts on the first of September. Once the clock strikes 12 on the first of September, nobody can question you if you start to play Christmas songs or start putting up your Christmas tree. Why not? It’s already Christmas.
Although Halloween is also celebrated in the Philippines, the major celebration from September up to the Feast of Epiphany in January is Christmas.
Cold ‘hanging amihan’
Hanging Amihan or the Northeast monsoon brings about the cold weather during the Christmas season. Although we do not have winter in the Philippines, the Christmas season is generally cold. Jackets and sweaters are a must especially in the provinces at early mornings. The lowest recorded temperature was in 2017 on Valentine’s day at 7.3 degrees Celsius.
Christmas in Our Hearts
Christmas in our Hearts is the Philippines’ unofficial Christmas song. Everybody knows it. Any Filipino can recognize it in the first few seconds that it starts to play. If a Filipino is abroad, he can recognize a fellow Filipino is nearby if he hears this song. This was popularized by Jose Mari Chan, an icon in the Philippines music industry. The song basically talks of how Jesus is the centre of Christmas and how the spirit of Christmas should always be in our hearts. You can listen to the song here, with lyrics so you can sing along (wink!).
The Christmas lantern or ‘parol’ as it is locally called is a staple Christmas decoration in the Philippines. It is usually made of bamboo and colored papers and comes in the shape of a star in all sizes and colors. During the Christmas season, this is a common school project so not only are the students able to fulfil their school requirements, they are also able to use their school project as decoration at school or at home.
Making these lanterns is actually a livelihood in the province of Pampanga. The province also holds Ligligan Parul, a lantern festival held annually in the city of San Fernando showcasing giant lanterns from the different barangays in the city.
In 2016, the Filipino community in Singapore gave a four-feet lantern to the Singaporean government.
Belenismo sa Tarlac
With majority of its population practicing Catholicism, the nativity scene, locally referred to as ‘belen’ is also one of the major aspects of the Christmas celebration. In the province of Tarlac, there is an annual ‘belen’ making competition called Belenismo sa Tarlac, where different municipalities, companies or schools participate to stage their own versions of the nativity scene using local materials.
Simbang Gabi or Misa de Gallo (Mass of the Rooster) are pre-dawn masses that start as early as three in the morning and is attended for nine days from the 16th of December, with the last one being held at Christmas eve. This tradition started during the Spanish occupation of the Philippines to allow the farmers to go attend mass before they start their work at the farms. To adjust to the modern times, Simbang Gabi are also now held at 8-9 in the evening to cater for the needs of the modern believers. It is said that if you complete all the 9 masses then your wish will come true.
Bibingka at Puto Bumbong
The best part of the Simbang Gabi is probably the breakfast after that which is usually bibingka or puto bumbong. Bibingka is a rice cake best eaten warm, cooked in clay pots with banana leaves, no oven needed. Some variations would have salted egg inside. Puto Bumbong, on the other hand, is a steamed delicacy made from Pirurutong, a variety of glutinous rice with a purple colour. These are steamed using bumbong or bamboo tubes. Both bibingka and puto bumbong are best topped with grated coconut and served with hot tea. Although traditionally eaten after the morning masses, they can be available throughout the day during the Christmas season.
Noche Buena literally means good night. In the context of Christmas, this pertains to the meal shared by the family after attending the Christmas eve mass. Usually, much more preparation and effort is given to the Noche Buena meal than to the actual meals on Christmas day. This meal is very important that some companies also give Noche Buena package to their employees as a gift for Christmas. A simple Noche Buena package will include ingredients for the Filipino style spaghetti and fruit salad, both staples of the typical Filipino Noche Buena meal. Although the food served on the table depends on the family’s financial situation, what is most important is togetherness. The best thing about Noche Buena: Christmas ham!Christmas Ham. Photo via sa.kapamilya.com
More than Santa Claus, kids wait in anticipation for the Aguinaldo from their ninong (godfather) and ninang (godmother) in baptism. It is a Filipino tradition that on Christmas day, godparents would give Aguinaldo, in the form of gifts or money or both, to their inaanak (godchildren). The Aguinaldo will be given after the child does the pagmamano – which is basically the younger person putting the older persons hands against his forehead. This is a sign of respect to the elder. Some godparents, who have a lot of godchildren, may prefer to ‘hide’ on Christmas day, especially if they do not have budget to spend on their Aguinaldo.
Visits on Christmas day
On Christmas day itself, family members would visit each other and have their Christmas meals together. Neighbours and friends also visit one another. Christmas day is full of food, gifts and money. Afterwards, you will see most of the people go to the malls, especially the younger ones, to spend the Aguinaldo the received from their godparents.
These Christmas traditions have been inculcated in the heart of every Filipino that they practice these wherever in the world they are. They will always miss and try to emulate the celebration of Christmas in the Philippines.
How does your country celebrate Christmas?