Filipinos celebrate the longest Christmas season in the world.
It starts on September 1, when the months of year begin to end in ‘ber’, as in Decem’ber’, and lasts until the Feast of the Three Kings on January 6 the following year.
While much of the Western world is preparing for Thanksgiving and Halloween, the Philippines is well already in its Christmas mode.
Here are seven Filipino Christmas traditions that make the holiday season unique in the Philippines:
- Simbang Gabi
The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic nation, and devotion to the Divine Creator is at the centre of Christmas. The Simbang Gabi, literally translated as evening mass, is a series of nine dawn masses starting on December 16 and up to December 24. Many Filipinos believe that their wishes will be granted if they attend all nine masses.
The Christmas tree may be iconic symbol in many North American homes, but it’s the parol or Christmas lantern that defines the holiday season in Filipino homes, schools, and establishments. Made of different materials and coming in various colours and sizes, the five-pointed-star-shaped lantern is a testament of Filipino creativity. According to folklore, these lanterns were used to help people find their way to church for the Simbang Gabi.
- Noche Buena
Christmas for many Filipinos is all about families. It’s the time of the year when family members from afar travel back to home for reunions. The highlight of these gatherings in Noche Buena, a traditional held on Christmas Eve. Families have their own favourite dishes to serve during the meal. Ham is almost always present on the dinner table. So is queso de bola, a ball of Edam cheese wrapped in red wax.
Aguinaldo is a Spanish word that means Christmas bonus. For kids, aguinaldo is a gift from their ninong or ninang, or godparents. It is customary for children to see their godfather or godmother to pay respect by through a gesture called mano before receiving a gift. Performed as a sign of respect towards elders, it is similar to kissing a hand. With the mano, the one making a mano will bow to the older person, and press their forehead on the hand offered by the other.
Filipinos have their own version of what is known in the English world as Secret Santa. It’s a gift-giving practice done among groups such as office mates and friends called Monito-Monita. Names are included in a draw, and one person picks one from the lot to whom a gift will be given on regular pre-agreed time, usually on a weekly basis. Fun themes are chosen like ‘something long and hard’ or ‘something hairy’. The exchanges culminate on revelation day, when a grand gift is given.
In addition to gifts from parents and aguinaldo from godparents, children have another reason to look forward to Christmas. They get a chance to make some money by going around the neighbourhood and singing traditional Filipino songs, like Ang Pasko ay Sumapit, to the accompaniment of hand-made musical instruments, such as tambourines made of bottle caps. Caroling starts on the December 16, the day of the first Simbang Gabi, and ends of Christmas eve.
Since efforts to resolve the communist-led insurgency through peace talks began in 1986, Christmas ceasefires have been observed by the Philippine government and rebels. It’s a show of goodwill, and an opportunity for combatants to spend some time with their families. For this year, the Communist Party of the Philippines has ordered its armed wing, the New People’s Army, not to launch operations against government troops from December 24 to December 26, 2018, and from December 31 to January 1, 2019.