A Month of Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in the Philippines

The Philippines – Noche Buena, Christmas 2018 (2018) strip of four

There is a very large number of Filipinos employed here in Thailand and I have worked with quite a few over the years, most recently with four lovely women during my month in Phang Nga province. I have always found people from the Philippines to the kindest overall of all nationalities that I have come into contact with. Those I have met have, without fail, been extremely hard-working and completely trustworthy, often speaking better English (and teach it better) than many of the American or British expats that staff the schools. Although English is one of the two official language of the country (and proclaimed as such by the Constitution of the Philippines 1987 in Article XIV, Section 7), unfortunately the Thai government doesn’t recognize Filipinos as native English speakers and thus pays them a lot less than the American, British, Australian, etc. teachers. Ignorance and prejudice tends to govern the immigration laws here.

Despite my friendship with so many Filipinos, I was never really aware of their holiday traditions until I began research for today’s ASAD article.

The Philippines is one of only two predominately Christian countries in Asia (the other one is East Timor) with Christmas (Pasko sa Pilipinas) as the one of the biggest holidays in the islands. As a matter of fact, there is no other country in the world that celebrates Christmas longer than the Philippines. As soon as the “-ber” months begin, Filipinos begin decorating their houses, businesses, and streets with gleaming displays, huge Christmas trees, and astounding decorations. Timeless classics by Jose Marie Chan and different Christmas carols start being played on the radio and in shopping malls. There are many traditions that are unique to the country.

The celebration lasts 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 15 until the Feast of the Epiphany on the first Sunday of the year. Thus, Christmas 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.

Due to Americanization, 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.

Paról (Christmas lanterns) being sold, during the Christmas season, in the Philippines. The paról is one of the most iconic and beloved symbols, of the Filipino holiday observance. Photo taken by Keith Bacongco on November 6, 2007. Used under a Creative Commons license.
A simple parol made with capiz shells. Photo taken by <a href=
Eugene Alvin Villar on December 30, 2007. Used under a Creative Commons license.” class=”size-full” /> A simple parol made with capiz shells. Photo taken by Eugene Alvin Villar on December 30, 2007. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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 (Tatlóng Harì in Tagalog). 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 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”.

A paról decorated with an intricate design, often lit during the evening. Photo taken at the Marikina City Hall by Ramon F. Velasquez on January 7, 2014. Used under the Creative Commons license.

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.

Simbang Gabi (“Night Mass”; Misa de Gallo in Spanish meaning “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 having 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 begins as early as three o’clock in the morning, while in some parishes, anticipated Masses begin the previous evening at 8:00 p.m. 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 tsokoláte (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.

Santa R-Kayma Klaws at Century Park Hotel,for the Manila Christmas tree-lighting event. Photo taken by Shannon Dale on November 25, 2015. Used under a Creative Commons license.

In the Philippines, Father Christmas is called Santa Klaws. His full and real name is Santa R-Kayma Klaws. During an episode [9] of the television show “Wowowin” on GMA Channel 7 on October 31, 2017, Willie Revillame, the host, briefly interviewed Santa and showed the TV audience his driver’s license, which read: Santa R-Kayma Klaws. Of Irish and Filipino descent, he is also the founder and chief business development officer of Pacific Santa’s Inc., a company registered with the Department of Trade and Industry. He has appeared at corporate events and carried out charity missions among poor Filipinos, especially children, every year since it was founded on February 6, 1964.

According to a report in Manila Bulletin, Santa R-Kayma Klaws was born in Zamboanga to a Filipino mestizo father and an Irish mother and began wearing the Santa suit at the age of 15. The report added that a visit to a leper colony in Cebu “made him realize he could make a difference by being Santa.” The same report says Santa has two masters degrees, in child psychology and business administration. “I’ve dedicated my life to the image of the peaceful and loving ambassador who brings yuletide and peace to all in the spirit of birth of our savior, Jesus,” he was quoted as saying. “The man doesn’t pick the suit. The suit usually picks the man.”

Like many other countries, Christmas in the Philippines is celebrated with song and praise. Children in small groups go from house to house singing Christmas carols, which they call 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

Aguinaldo” 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 holiday.

A Nativity scene at the Ibaan exit of the Southern Tagalog Arterial Road on the Pan-Philippine Highway, the Maharlika Highway and the South Luzon Expressway in Ibaan, Batangas. Photo taken by Ramon F. Velasquez on October 15, 2013. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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 North 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 using automatons to make the figures move up and down, or turn, etc. Each year, the company that owns 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 and holds the annual Belenísmo sa Tarlac, a belén-making contest which is participated by businesses and residents in Tarlac. Giant versions of the belén with different themes are displayed in front of the businesses and roads of Tarlac for the entire season.

Popular Pinoy Christmas songs and carols are performed by local artists and chorale groups. Pinoy Christmas carols and songs are also played on the radio every November and December. On November 11, 2014, an OPM (Original Pinoy Music) Christmas charity song entitled “Sa Pagsapit Ng Pasko” (“When Christmas Comes”) was released, dedicated to Typhoon Haiyan victims. It was performed by various indie and labeled Filipino artists.

Annually during Christmas, the TV network ABS-CBN features Christmas station IDs appearing in the form of a music video, which was also adopted by TV5 and GMA. In recent years, ABS-CBN’s Christmas songs like “Put a Little Love in Your Heart”, “Tuloy na Tuloy pa rin ang Pasko“, “Star ng Pasko“, “Ngayong Pasko, Magniningning ang Pilipino“, “Da Best ang Pasko ng Pilipino“, “Lumiliwanag ang Mundo Sa Kwento Ng Pasko“, “Magkasama Tayo sa Kwento ng Pasko“, “Thank You Ang Babait Ninyo“, “Thank You For The Love”, “Isang Pamilya Tayo Ngayong Pasko“, “Just Love Ngayong Christmas” and “Family Is Love” have gained popularity elsewhere. They have been praised by many Filipinos including children, gained a million views on YouTube, played in public places including parks, shopping malls and supermarkets, and received widespread critical acclaim.

Lights decorate a church as thousands of people attend an early morning mass which signals the beginning of the celebrations for Christmas. The early morning mass is a religious tradition where Filipinos attend a mass for nine consecutive days until Christmas. Photo by K.T. Rosales.

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 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.

Noche Buena feast on Christmas Eve
Panunuluyan with Mary and Joseph on Christmas Eve in the Philippines

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 10:00 p.m. 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 (“[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 the 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.

A statue in Iriga City commemorating the mano po gesture. Photo taken by Dnacario on December 24, 2015. Used under a Creative Commons license.
The Massacre of the Innocents by François-Joseph Navez, oil-on-canvas painting, 1824. Photographed while on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York NY, on April 12, 2011.

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 borrowers, and are instead forewarned not to lend money on this day. Victims of such pranks were once called out, “Na-Niños Inocentes ka!”

On December 31 (Bisperas ng Bagong Taón), Filipino families gather for the Media Noche a lavish midnight feast that supposedly symbolizes their hopes for prosperity in the coming year, and lasts until the following morning as with the Noche Buena taken on Christmas Eve. Filipinos make noise both to greet the New Year and in the belief that the din exorcises their surroundings of malevolent spirits. In spite of the yearly ban (due to the national government restrictions), people in most towns and cities customarily light firecrackers, or employ safer methods of merrymaking such as banging on pots and pans and blowing car horns.

Other traditions and beliefs include encouraging children to jump at the stroke of midnight to increase their height; displaying circular fruit such as oranges; wearing clothes with dots and other circular designs to symbolise coins and money; eating twelve grapes at midnight for good luck in the twelve months of the year (a Spanish custom); and opening all windows and doors to let in the blessings on the first day of the year.

The Adoration of the Magi by Edward Burne-Jones, 1804, tapestry. Currently at Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

The long Christmas season in the Philippines officially ends on the Feast of the Epiphany, known as Araw ng mga Tatlóng Harì (“Three Kings’ Day”, Día de los Tres Reyes in Spanish) or Pasko ng Matatanda (“Christmas of the Elderly”). Filipino children customarily leave their shoes out, so that the Kings will leave behind gifts like candy or money inside. Most others on this day simply give the common greeting of “Happy Three Kings!”. In some localities, there is the practice of having three men or three boys, dressed as the Tatlóng Harì, ride around on horseback, distributing trinkets and candy to the children of the area. The collective name for the group is immortalized as the Filipino surname Tatlóngharì.

The Spanish name for the holiday has survived to the present in the Philippines as the masculine given name Epifanio (e.g. Epifanio de los Santos). Due to American influence, the position of the Three Kings as gift-givers has been supplanted by Santa Claus.

Since 2011, the Catholic Church mandated that the Christmas season ends on the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, kept on either the Monday after Epiphany or the second Sunday of the year. The miraculous Black Nazarene, whose cult is centred in Manila and Cagayan de Oro, is borne in procession on January 9 after a novena in its honour. The date commemorates the image’s 1787 traslación (solemn transfer) from its original location in what is now Rizal Park to its present shrine in the Quiapo District of the city.

The Santo Niño de Cebú (Balaang Bata sa Sugbo in Cebuano, Batang Banal ng Cebu in Filipino, Santo Niño de Cebú in Spanish, and Santo Nino kan Cebu in Central Bicolano) is a Roman Catholic title of the Child Jesus associated with a religious image of the Christ Child widely venerated as miraculous by Filipino Catholics. It is one of the oldest Christian relics in the Philippines, originally given in 1521 as a gift by explorer Ferdinand Magellan to Rajah Humabon and his wife when he landed on the island. The image is replicated in various parts of the country with different titles and is one of the most beloved and recognizable Filipino cultural icons. Today, the original image is permanently encased behind bulletproof glass inside its chapel within the Minor Basilica del Santo Niño in Cebu City.

The latest date for the end of popular Christmas celebrations is the Feast of the Santo Niño (Christ Child) on the third Sunday of January. The image depiction most associated with this day is the purportedly miraculous Santo Niño de Cebú, the first Christian icon brought to the islands. In 1521, Ferdinand Magellan came to Cebú and gave the image as a present to Humamay, chief consort of the local monarch, Raja Humabon, when she, together with her husband and a number of his subjects, were baptized into the Catholic faith. Tradition holds that Humamay — who received the Christian name Juana after Joan of Castile — danced for joy upon receiving the Santo Niño, providing a legendary origin for the fervent religious dancing during the Sinulog held in honor of the Christ Child. Celebrations are mostly focused in Cebu, where the Sinulog Festival is held, while there are other celebrations held nationwide in its honor, including the Ati-Atihan Festival in Aklan Province, the Dinagyang in Ilolio, the Kahimunan in Butuan, and the feasts of the Holy Child in the districts of Tondo and Pandacan in Manila.

In older traditions (which are still kept in the liturgical calendar of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass) Christmas lasted until Candlemas, or the Feast of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of the Baby Jesus at the Temple. This marked the end of a long 40-day “Christmastide” corresponding to the 40 days of Lent. This date falls on February 2, after Mary had participated in a rite of purification in according to the ancient Candlemas festival rooted in Halakha (Jewish law). This is also when Simeon makes his well-known prophecy to Mary and Joseph about the Holy Child, of Jesus being a light for the Gentiles. Many parishes, if possible will still keep their nativity scenes displayed up until the celebration of the Presentation of the Lord on February 2.

This final salvo is marked by the Feast of Our Lady of the Candles in Jaro, Iloilo City, where the image is enshrined in the Jaro Cathedral, the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Candles, where Tridentine Masses are celebrated in commemoration. Similar celebrations are held nationwide in towns where Our Lady of the Candles is its patroness, including Candelaria, Quezon, whose town fiesta is celebrated on this date.

The Philippines – Christmas 2018: Noche Buena Feast (2018) full sheet of 16 stamps
The Philippines – Christmas 2018: Noche Buena (2018) first day cover

On October 31, 2018, the Philippine Postal Corporation (PHLPost) released a se-tenant strip of four stamps for Christmas (Pasko) 2018 featuring the traditional Filipino feast known as Noche Buena, Spanish for “Christmas Eve.” Some of the more conventional dishes served for the main course include lechón (roasted suckling pig), pancit (noodles), sweet-tasting spaghetti, fried chicken, jamón (Christmas ham), queso de bola (“ball of cheese”), arróz caldo (rice porridge similar to congee), lumpia (a kind of spring roll), turkey, relyenong bangus (stuffed milkfish), adobo, steamed rice, and various breads such as pan de sal. Desserts include úbe halayá (purple yam), bibingka (rice cake), membrilyo (quince cheese), fruit salad, various rice- and flour-based cakes, ice cream, pastries and fruits, while popular beverages such as tsokolate (hot chocolate) as well as coffee, soda, wine, beer, and fruit juices accompany the feast. Lechón as the centerpiece to this meal has been observed since the 15th century.

The four stamps in the set were designed by Phil-Post in-house graphic designer Rodine Teodoro and are each denominated at 12 pesos. Amstar Printing Company, Inc. printed 50,000 copies (3,125 miniature sheets giving a total of 12,500 strips of four) of the stamps using offset lithography, perforated 14. The designs, going left to right, portray a boy with puto bumbong (purple sitcky rice logs), a father and daughter with lechón, a mother and son with bibingka, and a girl with queso de bola.

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