Jul 15, 2024

Filipinos celebrate what seems to be the longest Christmas season in the world. Photo by Keith Bacongco/Lanterns anyone?

“Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.” Norman Vincent Peale

 Filipinos love to celebrate fiestas or festivals.

Fiesta celebrations are usually religious in nature, associated with a patron saint. Many towns, cities and provinces have unique fiesta celebrations that usually last for two days: the eve and the actual day.

The celebrations are generally thanksgiving rituals for a rich and bountiful harvest, and a good life for the people in the community. They showcase the rich traditions and cultures of the various communities that make each celebration unique and special. They attract both international and local tourists as the celebrations are not only participative but also truly unique experiences.

Some celebrations are characterized with parades, street dancing and competitions. Some of the more popular fiestas or festivals are the Sinulog, that celebrates the feast of Santo Nino de Cebu, the most attended fiesta in the country held every third Sunday of January with a dance ritual to the beat of the drums; the Kalibo Ati-Atihan, (to become like Aetas, an indigenous tribe) is another Santo Nino Festival also held in January, a participative fiesta, where people dance with other performers; the Pahiyas fiesta in Lukban, Quezonheld in May, a thanksgiving festival to honor San Isidro Labrador, the patron saint of farmers, for the rich harvest during the year; the Masskara Festival of Smiles held in October, an annual party in Bacolod to lift up the spirits of the people after the sugar crisis in 1980; and the Panagbenga (a season time of blossoming)Flower Festival in Baguio, celebrated with a grand flower float parade along Session Road on the last Sunday of February.


Celebrating the “Fiesta of Fiestas”
But the most-awaited, longest, most exciting and perhaps even magical fiesta in the Philippines is the celebration of the Christmas season that culminates on December 25. No other event generates the same excitement and enthusiasm as the celebration of the Christmas season. It is the most festive and the most joyous celebration. Why not? After all, it is the celebration of the birth of the “King of kings”, the savior of human kind and the Son of God. This excitement is also shared by overseas Filipino families who usually spend their vacation in the Philippines during the holiday season.

The spirit of the season usually creeps in with the airing of Christmas carols at the beginning of the so-called “ber” months. At the start of September, some radio stations begin playing Christmas songs. After Halloween, department stores start decorating their establishments with Christmas decors and grocery owners start alerting their consumers to buy the things they need for the preparation of the food they will serve during the holiday season to avoid the spike in the prices of goods. Some housewives start buying the Christmas gifts they intend to give to their loves ones to avoid the shopping rush and even the traffic caused by many people going out to shop for their own shopping needs.


A Nation in Sync Celebrating the Christmas Season
By November 1, TV and radio hosts start their countdowns till Christmas day. By mid-month many homes are already decorated with the symbols of Christmas. Reusable Christmas plastic trees are assembled and adorned with balls, bells and angels, as well as gifts; the Christmas Belen is arranged; flower arrangements of plastic poinsettias are brought out from the stock room; and a Christmas lantern is hung in a prominent place in the premises.

Churches also put up giant Belens (nativity scene) near the altar which are also adorned with flower arrangements of poinsettias. Christmas lights inside and outside the church buildings are turned on. Business establishments are not to be outdone sotheir hallways, as well as the facades of buildings, are also well lighted with special decorations that attract passersby. It seems that the entire nation is in sync when celebrating the Christmas Season.


Each of the decors symbolizes something: the belen is a miniature replica of the manger where the Baby Jesus was born, surrounded by his parents, three wise men from the east, shepherds and a few animals; the bells and the balls herald the coming of the Redeemer, the lantern usually shaped like a star, is the guiding light that showed the shepherds and the three wise men where the manger was. Although the Christmas tree is a borrowed tradition from the western world, the gifts that are part of the decors symbolize the gifts brought by the three wise men from the east. It seems there are gifts for everyone: family members, household help, mailman, delivery boys, street sweepers and other utility workers.

Of all the symbols, it seems that the one Filipinos truly embrace is the parol or the Christmas lantern. There are lanterns almost everywhere. Lanterns of various sizes, colors and materials line up main roads, subdivision roads, even small alleys. They adorn churches, residential as well as business buildings. A province in the south, Pampanga, is even named as the lantern capital of the Philippines where the most colorful and the most beautiful lanterns are made. Many Filipinos flock to the province during the holiday season to purchase the lanterns which can be stored and reused for several seasons. The lanterns are complete with sparkling, flickering and dancing lights that dazzle and are truly delightful to behold.

Starting December 16, which usually coincides with the start the Christmas break for students and teachers, churches hold simbang gabi or dawn masses for the faithful. The daily masses constitute a novena that is held daily up to December 24. There are now churches that hold the simbang gabi at 8 pm or 10 pm for the convenience of the people. The dawn or evening masses draw many faithful that is why the churches are usually overfilled during these events. The attendance even becomes bigger on December 24, Christmas eve. On this day, at the end of the mass, the church bells peal the longest and perhaps the loudest as they herald the birth of the Baby Jesus in Bethlehem. The choir sings, ÈAlleluia, Alleluia, the savior is born!”

During the simbang gabi, Filipino rice delicacies like puto bumbong, kutsinta, puto and bibingka are sold by enterprising vendors strategically located near the churches. Business is good as these vendors usually sell everything they have prepared for the day.

On Christmas eve, major TV stations gather their stars to perform in open public spaces to accommodate large audiences starting at 8 pm. The program features singing, dancing and comedy skits. The announcers also begin their hourly countdowns. Toward midnight, the countdowns are then announced by the second. At exactly 12 o’clock, all the performers join together in the singing of “Ang Pasko ay Sumapit” with the participation of the audience.

For those at home, this moment signals the start of the NocheBuena, a family tradition where the family all come together to share and enjoy a sumptuous dinner prepared for the occasion. The meal is followed by gift-giving.

After Christmas day, people look forward to New Year’s Day which is another festive occasion. During the eve of the newyear, TV stations hold the same rituals as Christmas eve, with singing, dancing and comedy skits and with countdowns. At midnight, performers sing “Auld Lang Syne” with the audience. At home and in many places, fireworks start to rise to the sky in multicolor shapes, horns are blown and other noisemaking instruments are struck. After the merry- and-noise-making event, everybody enjoys a sumptuous meal with the MediaNoche, another family tradition.

The holiday season ends with the celebration of the “The Three Kings” which is held on the first Sunday after New Year’s Day in January. Schools usually reopen the following day. This is also the start of another year of waiting for the most glorious, joyous and festive season in the world, for Filipinos.

AdelaidaLacaba-Bago, Ph.D., is a retired professor of education at De La Salle University in the Philippines where she handled courses in the graduate programs. She has published four books on curriculum development, supervision of instruction, social dimensions of Philippine education and the most recent one, Thesis Writing with Confidence.

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