by Teresa May Bandiola
When it comes to the red and green season, there’s no other country in the world that celebrates it longer and probably merrier than our country, the Philippines. The season kicks off on September 1, or the beginning of what we call “Ber” months, and extends until Three Kings Day in January. Christmas songs, especially the local classics, start playing on the radio, in commercial establishments — basically everywhere — complimented by gigantic colorful lanterns in celestial spectacle, springing an irresistible vibe of cheer and the anticipation that something bountiful and far from day-to-day ordinariness is about to take place. The thrill is further enhanced by the 100-day-until-Christmas countdown that begins on September 16.
Ranging from Catholic and Western influences, Christmas in the country has evolved as not only a religious festivity but also a cultural and commercial phenomenon. Its history is traced back to when the Spanish Crown introduced Christianity in 1521 and was westernized when the Americans colonized the country after winning the Spanish-American war in 1898.
Because the Philippines remains the largest Catholic nation in Asia, majority of us center Christmas season on Holy Night, the birth of the Christ, Savior of humanity. This explains why our most distinct Christmas symbol is the lantern, or parol,that is found hanging in every household, like a star sparkling brightly in our homes. Aside from the lantern, the nativity or Belen, which highlights the newborn Jesus in the manger, also comes to life. To commemorate these Biblical events, we hold a nine-day Mass series called Misa de Gallo or Simbang Gabi that starts at the dawn of December 16 and ends on the midnight of the 24th . This mass is also called the “Mass of the Rooster” because it starts at 4:00 a.m., allowing the farmers to go to church first before going to their fields early in the morning.
Today, the church experience is not complete without the freshly steamed traditional rice cakes — puto bumbong, bibingka and suman — that are sold outside the churches when the mass is over. Attending the mass has, somehow, contributed as to why the lantern is an iconic symbol because this used to light the streets for churchgoers. After the midnight Mass on the 24th, it is then immediately followed by the most awaited noche buena or the Bisperas ng Pasko, our counterpart of the Christmas Eve, which is a big open house celebration showcasing camaraderie and cheerfulness among families and friends, over a variety of gastronomic pleasures, particularly our all-time favorite traditional Filipino delicacies and Italian dishes with a twist.
The Philippines may be devoid of snowflakes falling from the skies and may feel like summertime during the season, there may be no chimney for Santa to break through nor real Christmas Pine tree to hang those bright decorations, but its unique and exciting customs and traditions presented below is what imparts the Filipinos a sense of ownership of Christmas. Warning ahead: We are not borderline insane.
1. There is a huge family reunion. Filipinos are naturally jolly people. We love family gatherings. Despite living in a third-world country, we do not hesitate to bring out some cash for an event that no money can ever afford: precious family bonding. To us, Christmas is not only the birth of Jesus Christ but the birth of the family as well, which brings forth an optimistic disposition and reconciliation. Christmas is unwittingly our ticket to leave whatever grudges in the past and instead reaffirm ties by gathering all family and clan members, old friends and new friends, over a potluck of various cuisines, especially lechon (our traditional roasted pig), seafood, local deserts, plus a series of karaoke singing and dancing.
Amid all the fun though, we do not tend to ignore the realities of pain and loneliness in ourselves and in our fellows, that is why we also seize the opportunity to turn our celebration into a moment of catching up on each other’s lives, making up for the lost times, making new friends, renewing relationships — ending things right even though it’s just short-lived.
Our gatherings are customarily done in the riverbanks, beaches or simply in the backyard, like that of a family picnic but with more food, gimmicks and people, especially new faces, that truly exemplifies our Filipino hospitality. There is no culture of judgment in these special events, just pure sociability and sunniness, peace and nostalgia. Everyone is encouraged to party, play around for the kids, drink up for the adults, and at least sing in karaoke the likes of Frank Sinatra or Celine Dion. Everyone is expected to hit the high notes, natural singer or not, believing that this would release emotional toxins, ward off evil spirits, and welcome a new year recharged and full of positivity.
2. It’s a network of events. In this holiday season, we do not only take pride of the massive reunions but also other important matters that remind us of our humanity: charity and care for one another. With our gift-giving parties we call monito-monita — at home, work, school, or within our peer groups — the notion of “giving is better than receiving” comes very much alive!
To bring a twist for exchange-gift parties, a theme or wish list is done where the giver can narrow down the search for the perfect present. Sometimes, a draw is performed to make the giver anonymous and is only revealed upon handing over the present. To make it more interesting, the giver provides a hilarious speech about the recipient along with warm Holiday wishes. These gift-giving parties are tagged along with talent shows and parlor games that give away special prizes usually in the form of cash and sometimes house appliances.
Children are the happiest ones in these events. Aside from toys, they also receive money, not coins but new and crispy bills. There is a belief that the newer and crispier the bill is, the better. Some adults would even intentionally go to the banks to have their large bills changed into smaller crispy bills.
Aside from the organizational events, there are also gift-giving parties and stunts that are informally conducted in our neighborhoods. These pave way to include those who neither go to school or work such as the out-of-school youths, senior citizens, and the unemployed ones. In the streets or plazas, there are also local beauty pageants and gay pageants where the members of LGBTQAI+ community can be who they are and entertain us with their best humor in the question and answer, and talent portions and amaze us with their most creative themed costumes and sparkling long gowns. Plainly, it’s all about generosity and goodwill, and everybody is a winner in the end.
3. Lots of bonuses and holidays. Bonus, or aguinaldo, is highly anticipated in this season. Christmas bonus from work or the 13th month pay, is given to all employees before December 25, both in the government and private sectors. Some employers would even give an extra 14th month pay. These bonuses are in preparation for the financial expenses for the season. To add, not only is December 25 a holiday but the half of the 24th, as well. This is in preparation for the open house festivity of noche buena so that more time is spent on cooking, on last-minute grocery and shopping, and other itinerary set for that important occasion. The 30th is also a holiday because it’s the day of our National Hero, which can serve as an extension of noche buena and preparation for New Year.
Because of these bonuses and holidays, couples who are planning to marry take advantage of it because they know that their relatives have more time and money to attend the wedding and are more capable of giving them expensive gifts such as house appliances or maybe a trip abroad. December 28 is often the most scheduled day to wed because of the belief that the number 8 there represents infinity for the lovely couple (representing the number 2).
4. Music everywhere. Only a few people know this, but the karaoke was actually invented by a Filipino who holds the patent. The karaoke has always been a central part of pop culture in the Philippines. Filipinos are natural songbirds. That is why we have lower tolerance for bad singing. This, however, is waived during Christmas season, and all day singing is accepted for social and cultural reasons. In addition, there is door-to-door caroling where we get to sing both local and international Christmas songs, with our own orchestra or bandurria. There is no age limit in joining this group. In some occasions, children form groups on their own and sing across the neighborhood with their handmade musical instruments like drums made from metal cans of milk and tambourine made from flattened soda caps we call tansan that are held together by a metallic wire called alambre. These children not only go house-to-house but also sing to anyone they meet in the streets. Then at the end of the caroling, children get to divide all their collections equally and go home full of cash.
5. Many Christmas attractions. The City of San Fernando, in the province of Pampanga, which is just outside of Metro Manila, is known for its annual Giant Lantern Festival. This is done to celebrate the lantern-making tradition of the province. Since Pampanga is the “Christmas Capital of the Philippines,” one should expect a lot of tourists and giant bright lights in every corner. If one wishes to stay within Metro Manila, there is also a magical light show at Ayala Triangle in the business district center of Makati City, which has an annual Christmas theme. Furthermore, institutions such as the University of Santo Tomas and University of the Philippines hold parades, concerts and firework displays, which are usually conducted before Christmas break as a treat to both students and guests.
One may wonder what all the fanfare is about but to us, all of these represent our creativity, our grit and the unwavering hope that no matter how hard life seems to be, there is always something out there to celebrate and be thankful for, and we do this in a cumulative way. Our Christmas may not be that of a Hollywood Christmas. It may not be fancy but its warmth and family spirit are enough to remind us of our obligation for one another. No matter where we are around the globe, we always find ways to come home for Christmas, to come back to its true essence — family.
Teresa May B. Bandiola, 29, is a pharmacist, writer and pharmacy instructor. She recently finished her Master’s degree from the University of Santo Tomas.