Christmas in the Philippines
Christmas in the Philippines (Filipino: Pasko sa Pilipinas), one of two predominantly Catholic countries in Asia (the other one being East Timor), is one of the biggest holidays in the island. The country celebrates the world’s longest Christmas season, with Christmas carols heard as early as September and lasting variously until either Epiphany, the Feast of the Black Nazarene on January 9, or the Feast of the Santo Niño on the third Sunday of January. The official observance by the Catholic Church in the Philippines is from the beginning of the Simbang Gabi on December 16 until the Feast of the Epiphany on the first Sunday of the year.
Every year, Filipinos from around the world mark September 1 as the beginning of the countdown to Christmas. This countdown, which spans from September to December, otherwise known as the “Ber Months”, is one of the most important traditions that make the world’s earliest and longest timespan of a Christmas season.
The Christmas season gradually starts from September to December and ends in the third or fourth week of January. It is celebrated for almost half a year (4 months and 3–4 weeks). Generally, holiday decorations are available as early as the National Heroes’ Day weekend in August. But for the Iglesia Filipina Independiente or Aglipayans, Christmas starts on the eve of December 24 and ends January 5.
The various ethnic groups in the Philippines each observe different Christmas traditions, and the following are generally common.
In urban areas like Metro Manila, many offices organize Christmas parties. These are usually held during the second week of December, or right before schools and universities go on holiday. Common activities include Monito/Monita (Kris Kringle), musical or theatrical performances and parlor games. Food is provided either through potluck or via a pool of contributions to buy food. Some have fireworks displays, but it was banned today due to nationwide Firecracker Ban. Similar events are held by schools and universities nationwide.
Simbang Gabi/Misa de Gallo
Simbang Gabi (“Night Mass”; Spanish: Misa de Gallo, “Rooster’s Mass”, or Misa de Aguinaldo, “Gift Mass”)is a novena of dawn Masses from December 16–24 (Christmas Eve). The Simbang Gabi is practiced mainly by Catholic and Aglipayans, with some Evangelical Christian and independent Protestant churches have adopted the practice of having pre-Christmas dawn services. Attending the Masses is meant to show devotion to God and heightened anticipation for Christ’s birth, and folk belief holds that God grants the special wish of a devotee that hears all nine Masses.
Morning observance of Simbang Gabi this holiday begins as early as 03:00 PST, while in some parishes, anticipated Masses begin the previous evening at 20:00 PST or as early as 19:30 PST in others. After hearing Mass, Catholic families buy traditional Filipino holiday fare for breakfast outside the church and eat it either within the church precincts or at home. Vendors offer many native delicacies, including bibingka (rice flour and egg-based cake, cooked using coal burners above and under); putò bumbóng (a purple, sticky rice delicacy steamed in bamboo tubes, buttered then sprinkled with brown sugar and shredded dried coconut meat). Drinks include coffee, salabát (ginger tea) and tsokolate (thick, Spanish-style hot chocolate). Some Aglipayan churches invite the congregation to partake of the “paínit” (literally, “heater”), a post-Mass snack of mostly rice pastries served with coffee or cocoa at the house of the Mass sponsor. The bibingka and putò bumbóng are also served to those attending the anticipated evening Masses together with dinner.
For Filipinos, Christmas Eve (“Bisperas ng Pasko“) on December 24 is celebrated with the Midnight Mass and the traditional Noche Buena feast. Family members dine together at around midnight on traditional yuletide fare, which includes: queso de bola (Filipino Spanish for “ball of cheese”, which is made of edam sealed in red paraffin wax); tsokoláte, noodles and pasta, fruit salad, pandesal, relleno and hamón (Christmas ham). Some families would also open presents at this time.
In different provinces and schools, the journey of Joseph and the pregnant Virgin Mary in search of lodging is re-enacted. The pageant, traditionally called the “Panunulúyan“, “Pananawágan“, or “Pananapátan“, is modeled after the Spanish Las Posadas.
The Panunulúyan is performed after dark, with the actors portraying Joseph and the Virgin Mary going to pre-designated houses. They perform a chant meant to rouse the “owners of the house” (also actors) to request for lodging. The owners then cruelly turn them away, sometimes also in song, saying that their house is already filled with other guests. Finally, Joseph and Mary make their way to the parish church where a replica of the stable has been set up. The birth of Jesus is celebrated at midnight with the Misa de Gallo.
Christmas Day in the Philippines is primarily a family affair. The Misa de Gallo is celebrated on December 25 and is usually one of several Masses that all family members (including non-churchgoers) are present. The Misa de Gallo is often celebrated between 10 pm and midnight, a schedule preferred by many Filipinos who stay up late on Christmas Eve for the night-long celebration of the Noche Buena.
Preferably in the morning, Filipinos typically visit their extended family, especially to pay their respects to senior relatives. This custom of giving respect is enacted through the “Págmamáno“. A supplicant takes the back of an elder’s hand and presses it against the forehead while giving the greeting, Máno, pô (lit. “[Thy] hand, please”). The elder often responds by reciting a blessing or simply acknowledging the gesture, and in return gives “Aguinaldo” or money in the form of crisp banknotes, often placed in a sealed envelope such as an ang pao. Godparents, in particular, are socially obligated to give presents or aguinaldo to their godchildren, to whom they often give larger amounts compared to other younger relatives.
A festive lunch may follow the “Págmamáno“. The menu is heavily dependent upon the finances of the family, with richer families preparing grand feasts, while poorer families choose to cook simple yet special dishes. Some families choose to open presents on this day after lunch.
When nighttime falls, members of the family usually return home or linger to drink, play parlor games, and chat. Some may opt to have another feast for dinner, while a minority spend the entire day at home to rest after the previous days’ festivities.
Holy Innocents’ Day or Childermas is commemorated on December 28 as Niños Inocentes. Filipinos once celebrated the day by playing practical jokes on one another, similar to April Fool’s Day. One of the widely practiced pranks on this day is to borrow money without the intention of paying back. Creditors are usually helpless in getting remuneration from the borrower and are instead forewarned not to lend money on this day. Victims of such pranks were once called out, “Na-Niños Inocentes ka!“
Due to Americanisation, decorations such as Santa Claus, Christmas trees, tinsel, faux evergreens, reindeer, and snow have become popular. Christmas lights are strung about in festoons, as the tail of the Star of Bethlehem in Belens, star shapes, Christmas trees, angels, and in a large variety of other ways, going as far as draping the whole outside of the house in lights. Despite these, the Philippines still retains its traditional decorations.
Every Christmas season, Filipino homes and buildings are adorned with star-shaped lanterns, called paról from the Spanish farol, meaning “lantern” or “lamp”. These lanterns represent the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Magi, also known as the Three Kings (Tagalog: Tatlóng Harì). Parol is as beloved and iconic to Filipinos as Christmas trees are to Westerners.
The most common form of the lantern is a 5-pointed star with two “tails” at the lower two tips. Other popular variations are four, eight, and ten-pointed stars, while rarer ones sport six, seven, nine, and more than twelve points. The earliest parols were made from simple materials like bamboo, Japanese rice paper (known as “papél de Hapón“) or crêpe paper, and were lit by a candle or coconut oil lamp. Simple parols can be easily constructed with just ten bamboo sticks, paper, and glue. Present-day parol has endless possible shapes and forms and is made of a variety of materials, such as cellophane, plastic, rope, capiz shell, glass, and even recycled refuse. Parol-making is a folk craft, and many Filipino children often craft them as a school project or for leisure.
The Giant Lantern Festival is an annual festival held the Saturday before Christmas Eve in San Fernando City, Pampanga. The festival features a competition of giant lanterns, and the popularity of the festival has earned the city the moniker, “Christmas Capital of the Philippines”.
Another traditional Filipino Christmas symbol is the belén—a creche or tableau depicting the Birth of Christ. Derived from the Spanish name for Bethlehem, Belén, it depicts the infant Jesus in the manger, surrounded by the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, the shepherds, their flock, the Magi and some stable animals, and is surmounted by an angel, the Star or both.
Belén can be seen in homes, churches, schools and even office buildings; the ones on office buildings can be extravagant, using different materials for the figures and using Christmas lights, parols for the Star, and painted background scenery. A notable outdoor belén in Metro Manila is the one that used to be at the COD building in Cubao, Quezon City. In 2003, the belén was transferred to the Greenhills Shopping Center in San Juan when the COD building closed down. This belén is a lights and sounds presentation, the story being narrated over speakers set up and most probably using automatons to make the figures move up and down, or turn, etc. Each year, the company owning it changes the theme from the Nativity Story, with variations such as a fairground story, and Santa Claus’ journey.
Tarlac City, Tarlac is known as the “Belén Capital of the Philippines” holds the annual “Belenísmo sa Tarlac”. It is a belén-making contest which is participated by establishments and residents in Tarlac. Giant versions of the belén with different themes are displayed in front of the establishments and roads of Tarlac for the entire season.
In the Philippines, children in small groups go from house to house singing Christmas carols, which they called pangangaroling. Makeshift instruments include tambourines made with tansans (aluminum bottle caps) strung on a piece of wire. With the traditional chant of “Namamasko po!“, these carolers wait expectantly for the homeowners to reward them with coins. Afterward, the carolers thank the generous homeowners by singing “Thank you, thank you, ang babait ninyo (you are so kind), thank you!”
An example of a traditional Filipino carol is a part of series known as “Maligayang Pasko”, which is commonly called “Sa maybahay ang aming bati”.
This is a word heard repeatedly during the Christmas Season in the Philippines. Presently, the term is interpreted as a gift or money received from benefactors. Aguinaldo is a Spanish term for the bonus. Its prevalent use may have originated from Filipino workers of the Spanish era, receiving extra pay from the generosity of the rich employers during the celebration of the Christmas season.