The Philippines is one of the most predominantly Catholic countries in Asia. Christmas in the Philippines has earned the distinction of celebrating the world’s longest Christmas season, with Christmas carol heard as early as September and the lasting until the Feast of Three Kings or Ephiphany. December 16 marks the first day of Simbang Gabi , the official observance of Christmas Season.
Christmas in the Philippines
As early as September, different Malls and shopping centers begin selling Christmas decors, due to our adaptation to the American culture, decorations such as Santa Claus, Christmas trees, tinsel, faux evergreens, reindeer, and snow has 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 beautiful 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. Parol are 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 the 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 was commonly called as “Sa maybahay ang aming bati”:
Sa maybahay, ang aming bati:
“Merry Christmas na maluwalhati!”
Ang pag-ibig, ‘pag siyang naghari
Araw-araw ay magiging Pasko lagi!!
Ang sanhi po, ng pagparito,
Ay hihingi po ng aguinaldo.
Kung sakaling, kami’y perwisyo;
Pasensya na kayo’t kami’y namamasko!!
With various ethnic groups in the Philippines each observe different Christmas traditions, and the following are generally common are the following:
Simbang Gabi , Misa de Gallo or “Rooster’s Mass” is a novena of dawn masses for 9 days which starts from 16th December to 24th December which is the Christmas Eve. Simbang Gabi is mainly practiced by the Catholics and Aglipayans. Attending the masses for 9 days is meant to show devotion and heightened the anticipation of for the Birth of Christ, and folk belief holds that God grants the special wish of a devotee that hears all nine masses.
The mass is usually observed from 3:00 am to 5:00 am, after hearing the mass families buy traditional Filipino holiday breakfast outside the church like bibingka, puto bumbong, tskolate (thick, Spanish-style hot chocolate),coffee, salabat (a ginger ale).
Christmas Eve – 24 December
For Filipinos, Christmas Eve (“Bisperas ng Pasko”) on 24 December 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 (Spanish: “ball of cheese”, which is edam cheese) sealed with red wax; tsokoláte, 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 modelled 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 – 25 December
Christmas Day in The Philippines is primarily a family affair. The Misa de Aguinaldo is celebrated on December 25 and is usually attended by the whole family. It is the main means of celebrating Jesus Christ’s birth for Catholics and Aglipayans.
The Misa de Aguinaldo 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 members of the extended family, especially to pay respects to their elders. This custom of giving respect has been an age-old tradition in the Philippines called “Pagmamáno”, which is done by bringing the elder’s hand to one’s forehead, while saying the phrase Máno Pô. The elder then blesses the person who has given their respect, and in return gives “Aguinaldo”, or money in the form of crisp, fresh-from-the-bank bills is given after the Pagmamano, mostly to younger children. Godparents are especially socially obligated to give presents or Aguinaldo to their godchildren.
A Christmas Lunch usually follows after the “Pagmamano“. 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 the lunch.
When nighttime falls, members of the family usually return home or linger to drink, or playing parlor games and Disco Party. Some may opt to have another feast for dinner. Some families spend the entire day at home to rest after the previous days’ festivities.
This is a word heard repeatedly during the Christmas Season in the Philippines. Presently, the term is interpreted as gift or money received from benefactors. Aguinaldo is a Spanish term for 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.
Since 2011, the Catholic Church mandated that the season end on the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, held on either the Monday after Epiphany or the second Sunday of the year. Final festivities are held on 8 and 9 January with processions of the miraculous Black Nazarene in Manila and Cagayan de Oro. These are in honour of the image’s 1787 traslación (transfer) to its present shrine in its basilica in Quiapo District, which was then a separate town.