IN an age where modernization has taken over traditions, it is good to know that there are still several places in the Philippines where the way we celebrate things are kept – especially Christmas – the same way our grandparents had celebrated them when they were young.
This place is Las Piñas, the small city south of Manila.
I’m not a resident of Las Piñas but consider myself an honorary resident because I spent my high school years there. I could say that my love for the arts started there because it’s the only place I know where high school students were required to attend art appreciation classes. The Saint Joseph Parish church has the only working organ in the world made from bamboo, and the students of its school are required to take pride of this. I still remember spending many afternoons listening to it melodious sound, trying to learn the difference between Baroque and Classical music.
Plaza Quezon in Las Piñas has long been known to be the biggest producers of traditional parols (lanterns) in Metro Manila. These are the bamboo and papel de Japon (Japanese paper) type of parols. You know that Christmas is coming near when every house in Plaza Quezon is converted into parol-making shop as early as September.
The parols of Las Piñas played an important role in decorating the church of Saint Joseph. Several decades ago, the German priest in charge at the time thought of a way to entice the parishioners to attend the Misa de Gallo or morning mass. He thought of decorating the whole church and the patio with traditional parols, and letting them listen to the bamboo organ playing Christmas melodies.
The plan paid off. It did not only bring local residents to attend morning mass – it also brought people from nearby towns. Suddenly, Las Piñas became an instant Christmas attraction! Several changes needed to be made though. The number of attendees became so huge that they needed to transfer the mass from the church to the patio. And the paper parols had to be replaced with plastic ones because they could not withstand the rain.
How to get there
Las Piñas city is quite near Manila. The Saint Joseph church is only 12 kilometers from Kilometer Zero (KM 0) in Luneta.
The shortest way is to drive south via the old Calle Real, which actually starts in Intramuros. Continue driving to Malate, then to Harrison and Baclaran, then to Tramo in Parañaque before finally reaching Las Piñas.
The quickest way is via Roxas Boulevard and then Coastal Road. At the end on Coastal Road, turn left to Zapote, then continue driving via Pulanglupa before finally reaching Poblacion.
Those taking public transport may take any Jeepney going to Balcaran. From Baclaran, get on a jeepney going to Zapote. Alight at Saint Joseph church where most of the Christmas attractions are located.
What to see, what to do
Most of the Christmas festivities in Las Piñas are located around Saint Joseph Parish Church. This church was founded in 1795 by Fray Diego Cera de la Virgen de Carmon, a native of Spain. Fray Cera was a gifted man. He was a natural scientist and architect, as well as organist and organ builder. He built the organ for the Manila Cathedral. When the stone Saint Joseph Church was completed in 1816, he started building an organ made of bamboo. This was completed in 1824.
The church and the bamboo organ both have undergone restorations during the 1970s. The bamboo organ was sent to Bonn, Germany for rehabilitation. At the same time, the team of Francisco Manosa worked on the church to bring back its 19th Century look and to introduce some local materials. The restored church now features bamboo ceilings, capiz chandeliers, antique balustrades and aged bricks.
The church interior is further enhanced with native parols during Christmas while the church exterior, the adjoining convent, the school and the whole patio are decorated with thousands of plastic parols that are all lighted at night.
The Misa de Gallo tradition of Las Piñas starts every year on the eve of December 16 when the whole patio comes alive with activities: with local tiendesitas (vendors) selling local kakanins (native delicacies) being put up and the local residents doing finishing touches on the church decorations. A little after midnight, the local marching band goes around, playing Christmas music, to wake people up. By 4 am, the first day of Misa de Gallo starts. The mass celebration is further made special with the playing of the bamboo organ and the singing of the famed Las Piñas Boys Choir. By 6 am, the mass ends and for most of the attendees, it’s time to sample the local kakanins.
Visitors to Las Piñas can also check some of the city’s attractions, like to old Convento, the statue of Fray Diego Cera made by National Artist Napoleon Abueva and the many old houses around poblacion that are all part of the Las Pinas Historical Corridor.
Further down the road is Plaza Quezon, where the traditional parols made of bamboo and papel de Japon are still being made. They also now do plastic parols similar to those displayed at Saint Joseph church and the more modern parols with light emitting diodes or LEDs.
Continuing to Zapote, visitors can still see the Old Zapote Bridge where the fierce battle between the Filipinos and the Spaniards took place during the revolution.
Where to stay, what to eat
Las Pinas can be toured in a day so there is no need to stay overnight.
Every Las Piñas visitor, however, must sample the local kakanins being sold at the patio during the holiday season. Top of the list is the puto bumbong. Originally made from pirurutong or purple rice, it is now made from glutinous rice, grinded, mixed with purple color, steamed in bamboo tubes, rolled in grated coconut and served with margarine and muscovado sugar.
Another must-try kakanin is the traditional bibingka or rice cake. Try to watch how it is prepared: rice batter with sliced salted eggs, margarine, sugar and cheese, then cooked on a clay dish with heat on top and at the bottom.
Both puto bumbong and bibingka are best consumed with a hot cup of local tea made from boiled avocado leaves and pandan. It never fails to warm the heart and nourish the soul knowing that traditional Filipino Christmas still exists.