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Christmas: It’s really more fun in the Philippines

Even with all the modern conveniences and latest technological advances available today, tradition still plays a large role in Philippine popular culture.  Aside from the everyday values being practiced in the regular Filipino household, these traditions are even more evident when it comes to special events such as the Holy Week and the  Yuletide season. Western concepts such as gift-giving and Santa Claus have been incorporated into the festivities, but these are modified and given a Filipino twist to help make this season truly extraordinary. 

In many Christian Filipino homes the Belen or nativity scene is
prominently displayed among the usual trimmings. Teddy Pelaez
Filipinos abroad lament the lack of Christmas spirit in their current locations. This springs from the fact that while most other nationalities pause from their busy lives for their eggnogs and whatnot usually only on the day itself, the season in the Philippines officially starts as soon as the –ber months arrive. As early as September, carols start playing on the radio and through mall loudspeakers to remind everyone that Christmas is set to roll around again. There is much to be excited about, as Christmas is indeed more fun in the Philippines. Here are some of the lovely practices handed down through generations that are alive and well in this wonderful country.

1. Hanging a parol (Christmas lantern) on windows and porches. The parol is a star-shaped lantern that symbolizes the bright star that led the Three Kings to the manger where the child Jesus was born. The traditional parol does not stray far from the original design of a five-pointed star constructed out of bamboo strips and colorful papel de japon. A candle or lamp may also be carefully placed inside for illumination. Filipino creativity and the availability of other materials have given the parol other incarnations—ones crafted from Capiz shells and adorned with blinking fairy lights being the most popular among metrophiles. Pampanga is known as a Christmas destination because of its Giant Lantern festival held on the Saturday before Christmas. Huge parol entries from all over the country are paraded down the streets, their cacophony of lights blinking in tune to accompanying brass bands.

2. The Belen. While Santa Claus is a central figure in the Western world’s Christmas decorations, many Christian Filipino homes have a nativity scene prominently displayed among the usual trimmings. Small carved figures, porcelain statuettes, or even those made from recycled materials depicting the Holy Family are good reminders of the Reason for the season.    

3. Simbang Gabi. The parol traditionally illuminated barrio folk’s paths as they wended their way through the dark to attend the Simbang Gabi at their local parish. These early morning devotional masses start on December 16 and end on December 24. The readings and gospels are all advent-related, leading to the culmination, which is the birth of Christ. It is said that those who complete the series may request for a special wish or favor from above. During the days of Martial Law, the imposition of a nationwide curfew (which was implemented from 11 p.m to 4 a.m) forced the Catholic Church to make some adjustments so that some services are now held in the early evening.

Puto bumbong and bibingka sellers dot the
streets as early as September.         EY ACASIO
4. Bibingka, puto bumbong, salabat. After the early morning masses, Filipinos line up outside the church to get their fill of traditional Christmas goodies to warm them up from the chilly December air. Bibingka and puto bumbong are rice-based native cakes cooked using charcoal ovens and served on banana leaves. Salabat is a brewed ginger tea that is perfect for combating the cold.

5. Caroling. There are groups of carolers found in most countries that celebrate Christmas, but none are probably as festive (nor as noisy) as the Filipino children who wander from house to house, from one street to the next, singing popular Christmas songs in exchange for a few coins. Depending on the age and sophistication of the group, they can be accompanied by a guitar, drums and maracas made out of tin cans, or tambourines of pop caps strung on a wire.

6. Monito, monita. This is the Philippine version of Secret Santa, amped up. It is the practice of exchanging gifts among groups of friends, officemates or classmates, for a span of several weeks or days. After names are drawn, participants are given  lists of categories the scheduled gifts have to fall into, e.g., Something Sweet may be a candy bar, while Something Long may be a scarf (or most probably something naughty).  Aside from the revelation of who the gift-giver is, the thrill is in finding unusual or funny items that fit into each category.

7. Pamamasko. Some Filipinos like to jokingly say that they have developed amnesia or will go into hiding during the holiday season. This is because it is tradition to give out gifts of toys, clothes or money to godchildren on or around Christmas day. These godkids dress up and visit their ninongs or ninangs to receive their treats and to get their blessings. More enterprising tykes simply knock on random doors and shout “Namamasko po!” on Christmas day.

8. Family reunions. Christmas in the Philippines is best celebrated with family. This is the time when reunions and catch-ups among relatives are held, usually over tables groaning with food. The holiday break affords those in the cities the time to go home to their provinces and it is also a time for balikbayans to arrive. This practice is integral to helping forge strong familial bonds and the passing on of traditions and good memories to the next generation. 

9. Noche Buena. If there is anything that Filipino celebrations can be known for, it is that any festive occasion is marked with a lot of good food. This rings especially true with the Noche Buena, the time-honored feast held on Christmas Eve. This is the time when mothers serve up the best of the best dishes to their families. While there are several items that are traditionally present at a true-blue holiday feast, such as lechon (roast pig), jamon (ham), and keso de bola (edam cheese), it is also a time for heirloom recipes to be served proudly at the table.

There are more practices unique to different parts of the archipelago, and even others that are unique in each family. What is important is to help keep these traditions alive, to pass it on, as something that the next generation can hold on to and eventually keep alive in their own future families.

   

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