Among the different holidays celebrated in the Philippines, none is more anticipated than Christmas. Introduced by the Spanish colonizers to the Filipinos when they arrived in the country back in the 1500s, Christmas in the Philippines is a celebration where traditional Western customs and traditions are given a twist, giving this much-loved holiday a unique experience enjoyed by locals and foreigners alike.
The Longest Christmas Season in the World
Filipinos are known to have the longest Christmas season in the world. It starts in September and lasts all the way until January the following year with the celebration of the Three Kings or Epiphany, which is held 12 days after Christmas. It’s a common sight in shopping malls to see Christmas decorations side by side with decorations for other holidays celebrated in the Philippines like Halloween.
Much of the Christmas decorations used to fill the houses and business establishments across the Philippines are a mix of the different influences brought to the country by the Spanish and Americans.
Perhaps the most iconic Christmas decoration in the Philippines is the parol. Its name comes from the Spanish word farol meaning “lantern.”
The most traditional kinds of parol are five-pointed star-shaped lanterns made out of bamboo and papel de Japon (Japanese paper) and lit with a small candle inside. The choice of the star shape is said to have been inspired by the star that guided the Magi to the birthplace of Jesus. It is quite fitting, since the parol was first used by people from the provinces to light and guide them as they made their way to Mass, held during this time of the year, before dawn.
Over the years, the designs of the parol have become more elaborate and more festive. In addition to the traditional ones made from paper and bamboo, there are now parols that are made using different kinds of materials from beads to sea shells and even straw. Instead of one little candle lighting the center, parol makers in the Philippines fill the inside with Christmas lights that make the designs of the parol appear to dance when lit.
Another iconic Christmas decoration seen in the Philippines is the Belen, or Nativity scene. The design is inspired by the accounts of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. It is commonly found in houses, church altars, and even in open areas amidst the cosmopolitan buildings.
Just like the parol, the design of the belen can range from simple to the extremely elaborate. The simplest ones merely include the images of Mary, Joseph surrounded by hay with the infant Jesus placed in the middle inside a manger. The more elaborate ones would include images of the Magi with their gifts, the shepherds, animals, angels and a shelter covering Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus.
Throughout the days leading up to Christmas, the manger where the image of the infant Jesus is laid is empty. The infant is only placed on Christmas Day to symbolize his birth.
Of course, what would Christmas be without a Christmas tree? Putting up a Christmas tree was introduced to the Philippines when the Americans arrived. Since the Philippines is a tropical country, pine trees only grow in very few places in the country. That’s why instead of getting a freshly cut pine tree like in America, artificial pine trees are often used.
In many cities and shopping malls across the country, Christmas trees are not only huge. They are also built and designed using different materials, just like the Christmas tree on the right which is made with traditional star-shaped parols of different colors. Other materials used include twigs, wood, and recycled items.
Christmas Traditions and Customs
As with any country, Filipinos have a number of different traditions and customs when it comes to celebrating Christmas.
Misa de Gallo
Being a predominantly Catholic country, it’s not surprising that one of the popular customs done during Christmas involves attending Mass.
Misa de Gallo, which means “Rooster’s Mass” in Spanish, is held starting December 16 of each year and ends on December 24 where the Mass is held at Midnight. It was called Rooster’s Mass because the Mass is celebrated at four in the morning. These days, however, churches now celebrate this late in the evening (usually at 10pm), giving the rise to the term Simbang Gabi (Night Mass).
Before the start of the Misa de Gallo, many Filipinos would often think of something that they really wish to have. It is believed that if you finish all nine days of the Misa de Gallo, that wish would come true. I have never completed all nine days so I can’t really say whether this part of the Misa de Gallo is true or not. Perhaps this year, I’ll try to see if I can complete all nine days to see whether my wish would come true.
Before heading back home, it’s quite common to grab some bibingka (sponge-like cake made of rice) or puto bumbong (purple-colored steamed sticky rice cake) to have for breakfast with coffee or hot chocolate.
Literally translated as “The Good Night”, the Noche Buena is a feast eaten by families on Christmas Eve, usually after attending the Midnight Mass. Families sit down to enjoy a smorgasbord of food using their best dinnerware.
The traditional spread prepared for Noche Buena includes lechon (roasted pig), pancit (stir-fried noodles), fried chicken, lumpia (spring rolls filled with meat), rice, adobo, cheese, bread, ham, and fruit salad.
It is not surprising to find less traditional food prepared and served during this time. In some cases, the feast is a lot simpler, with families enjoying two or three different kinds of food. Regardless on how grand or simple the feast is, for the average Filipino family, the most important part of the Noche Buena is that everyone is sitting down together, enjoying a good meal and each others’ company as they stay up until the wee hours of the morning.
In the days leading up to Christmas, many children would go from house to house singing Christmas carols outside houses. In return, they are given money or sweets by the homeowners. Some foundations also send out letters to different homeowners to go to their houses to sing some Christmas carols for the family in return for a donation.
Christmas is that time of the year in the Philippines when families get together and enjoy each others’ company. It’s not surprising that most family reunions are held during this holiday, usually in the home of the grandparents on Christmas Day. While the grown ups mingle with each other while enjoying a glass of wine or beer, the children busy themselves with opening of gifts and playing with each other.
Family reunions during Christmas is often a whole day affair, beginning late in the morning before lunch time and lasting all the way until past midnight.
How do you celebrate Christmas where you live? What is your most favorite thing about Christmas?