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Christmas, Filipino Style

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.

Christmas Decorations

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.

Christmas parols

Parols in all shapes and sizes sold in the streets during Christmas. Photo by stranded wahine Flickr Creative Commons

The Parol

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.

Christmas Nativity Scene

The belen depicts the adoration of the Magi and the shepherds is a common sight in the Philippines during Christmas. Photo by Jojo Nicdao Flickr Creative Commons

The Belen

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.

Christmas Tree

Huge Christmas Tree made of parols. Photo by Via Tsuji Flickr Creative Commons

Christmas Tree

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.

Attending the early morning mass during Christmas

Attending early morning Mass is one of the common Christmas customs in the Philippines. Photo by nozomiiqel Flickr Creative Commons

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.

Lechon - Christmas dinner

The lechon (roast pig) is often the star of the Noche Buena held during Christmas. Photo by Joshua Bousel

Noche Buena

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.

christmas carolers

Christmas carolers Photo by Daniel Y. Go Flickr Creative Commons

Christmas Caroling

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.

Family Reunions

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?

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About Adeline Yuboco

A natural-born foodie with an eye for detail, I started Life and Leisure to be a place where I can share on how to travel and live in style within your means. At the same time, I cover various events for DigitalJournal.com where I'm a contributing journalist. If you got a great story idea or have an event you'd like me to cover, drop me an email at the Contact page, message me on Twitter, or Connect with me on
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Comments

  1. Wow! Adeline, I didn’t know Christmas is so well celebrated in Philippines! One of my closest friend, who is Filipino, never told me about this. I think this will definitely be a good conversation for the next time we meet :)
    Be sure to check out Neeraj Sachdeva’s most recent post…What Do Rafael Nadal, Kimi Raikkonen, and LA Lakers Have In Common?My Profile

    • Yes, it is, Neeraj. No matter what happens, there’s just something about Christmas that gives Filipinos the opportunity to enjoy and be happy. I can’t wait to hear how your chat with your Filipino friend turns out. :D

  2. Have spent quite a lot of time in the Filippines and worked with your government and leading companies. But I had no idea that the Christmas season in your country is longer than anywhere else. Neither had I heard about belen and parol. Interesting.

    Interesting article for the majority of people in this world since they will learn somthing new.
    Be sure to check out Catarina Alexon’s most recent post…Would Harvard regard you as a great leader?My Profile

  3. This is a lovely post and I enjoyed learning about your unique ways of celebrating Christmas. I’d love to see a Parol — I’m sure they are all dazzling.
    Be sure to check out Jeannette Paladino blogging, branding’s most recent post…PRSA Uses Crowd Sourcing for New Definition of Public RelationsMy Profile

  4. Wow those parols are amazing. What’s the best way to find those in the U.S.?

    Also I found it interesting that the Philippines start celebrating Christmas all the way back to September. I’m all for that, but I know how most people are over here and how upset they get if any Christmas stuff comes up before Thanksgiving.

    Great post.

    Bryce
    Be sure to check out Bryce Christiansen’s most recent post…Work Life Balance Out of Whack? Here’s 6 Superb Tips to Get Life CenteredMy Profile

    • Hi Bryce! You can find Christmas parols in Amazon. At least, that’s where I found some. :)

      Some of my friends living in the US also told me the same thing. I guess one of the reasons also why we have the longest Christmas season is because we don’t really celebrate Thanksgiving or Halloween in the same scale as there in the US. :)

  5. Christmas is such a huge thing here in the Philippines, I can attest to that. The traffic alone speaks for itself. People troop to the malls like there’s no tomorrow.

    I don’t know, there’s something about Christmas that makes me sad, though…

    • That’s so true, and it’s not just the malls, but the different bazaars as well. The blood drained from my face when my mom told me last night that she wanted to go to the World Bazaar in Pasay today. Good thing she remembered that it’s the weekend. Hopefully the traffic there will be less crazy during the weekday.

  6. merry christmas adelle.. :) great blog

  7. > It starts in September and lasts all the way until January
    That’s incredible. I guess I know where to go if I really want to savor Christmas for a good long time.

    • Hi JD! Nice to see you again here.

      Yes, the Philippines is one place to visit if you really love to experience the holidays for a long time. We don’t have any snow here, but it sure is still quite a lot of fun.

  8. Wow! Some of your points were memories for me while others were completely new! =) The last time I was in the Philippines for Christmas, I was in Davao and I don’t remember some of these traditions like Christmas caroling. But I *do* remember fireworks, which was now illegal, I think?

    The parol is an important memory for me too because we have a beautiful five-pointed star parol with shining lights that we hang on our front window in Vancouver every year. =) I didn’t know it was called parol though! =)
    Be sure to check out Samantha Bangayan’s most recent post…Being a Kid Again with Children in PeruMy Profile

    • Thanks so much, Samantha. So far, it’s only in Davao and a few other cities where lighting fireworks is illegal. But for the most part, it’s still pretty much okay to light them, especially during New Year.

      Christmas caroling is relatively a new thing that they do now. I only actually started getting a taste of Christmas caroling back when I was already in high school. These days, it’s very much like in the US and other Western countries. They now have groups singing Christmas carols in shopping malls, too.

  9. Hi Adeline!
    Very interesting post. I was wondering whether it ispossible to see such a pperformance in the United States. There’re large Philippino communities in some cities here and I think it’s quite possible that they decorate their areas as well.

    • Hi Eugene, glad you found the post interesting. Yes, there are a number of different events that are held by the Filipino communities in the United States where they do some of the much-loved Christmas traditions we do here in the Philippines. The best place you can check is TheFilipino.com (http://www.thefilipino.com/). They have a list there of the websites of the different organizations of Filipinos across the US and Canada where they post announcements of their upcoming events. :D

  10. Hi Adeline:

    First, I’d like to say Mabuhay! As a fellow Filipino (as you know flipinos like to say that) – I must say that this post resonated home to me. Also, there are but very few Filipino active bloggers out there and I’m happy you’re doing so. It’s a beautiful site!!

    P.S. If you visit Central California and Seattle you’ll find a lot of Filipino Communities decorating the streets with Christmas decorations!

    P.P.S. I’m not going to follow your blog! Weeee
    Be sure to check out Jonathan Gaurano’s most recent post…Would You Want Hitler To Go To Heaven?My Profile

  11. Do you have Santa Claus or something similar? It’s a huge part of Christmas stateside…
    Be sure to check out Kooz’s most recent post…Top 5 Weirdest Creatures I’ve EatenMy Profile

    • Santa does make his presence felt in many of the major malls here in Metro Manila. But compared with the States, he’s not really that popular with the kids here. In fact, the practice of having a place where Santa sits down and kids come over to sit down on his lap for a photo op only started recently.

  12. Christmas the longest season in the world Christmas decorations the parole many place meant in all over the world .Many Christmas sides is very beautiful.For example the Belem tree is so good and beautiful so traditions and customs.

  13. Christmas Filipino style is the greatest style in all over the world.Christmas the longest season in all the weather .Life is so enjoy able in this moment and people are enjoyed in this event.So Christmas Filipino is so impressive in this time.

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