The Philippines is perhaps the best place in the world to spend Christmas. Of course it all depends on one’s concept of Christmas celebration. Christians celebrate Christmas to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. The Philippines, being the only Christian country in Southeast Asia, is one place that gives meaning to the true spirit of Christmas.
Christmas celebrations in the Philippines go beyond the traditional practices in most Christian countries of the world. In the Philippines, Christmas is celebrated with lavish preparations.
Immediately after the month-long celebrations that normally end on the feast of three kings in January of each year, most Filipinos would start to prepare and save money for the next Christmas season.
As early as October of each year, Filipinos would start doing some renovations and improvements on their homes in preparation for the coming of their important family visitors. They are either relatives or friends coming home for Christmas holidays from their overseas work assignments or just plain family members coming to the house to bring gifts (or to pick up gifts) and pay respects to each family member especially the elders.
On the commercial side, some enterprising Filipinos would venture into native lantern-making. Most of their lanterns are made of bamboo for framing and decorative and colored papers for cover. These lanterns come in different sizes and designs. They are paraded in strategic locations in metro manila and in the provinces for sale at very low prices. One can buy a small native lantern for less than a dollar. As the rural lantern technology develops in the countryside, Philippine-made lanterns found its niche in the export market. Many countries in Europe and North America have been importing locally-made lighted lanterns made by Filipino lantern designers and craftsmen.
In the Philippines, there is neither a rich nor a poor Filipino during Christmas time. The spirit of Christmas is present in every Filipino family. ‘Ninongs’ or ‘Ninangs’ (Godparents) by tradition would prepare something for their Godchildren. Traditionally, the Godchildren will come to pay respect to their Godparents by either kissing their hands to show respect or just by hugging them and then they pick up the gifts and leave for their next visit to relatives, friends or other Godparent’s homes. This is one Filipino tradition that has been kept for generations.
Christmas in the Philippines is one very special occasion for family reunions. It is also a time for healing old wounds or family conflicts. Once the offending party asks for forgiveness, he is almost instantly forgiven and hugging and other expression of affection take over.
Every year, ‘misa de gallo’ or ‘Simbang Gabi’ (early morning mass), another Filipino religious tradition, starts at 3 a.m. of December 16th every year. It is led by the Roman Catholic Church and is celebrated for 9 days, culminating on Christmas Eve which is called the midnight mass. Church goers would feast on native delicacies like bibingka or puto bumbong (rice cake with grated coconut meat) and salabat (ginger tea) which are usually served as their early morning breakfast after coming home from the church. Most Filipinos believe that for anyone who completes the 9-day scheduled early morning masses, he will be showered with good graces or he will have all his prayers answered. It is quite difficult to complete the 9-day mass because some churchgoers find it hard to wake up during the ‘unholy hour’ of the night just to attend the 3 a.m. mass.
The most popular Filipino tradition is the ‘Noche Buena’(midnight dinner). It is actually an elaborate midnight dinner, a culmination of the 9-day early morning mass. During this time, the families are gathered together for sumptuous dinners that usually include native hot chocolate, lechon (roast pork or beef), ham, pasta, rellenong bangus (stuffed milk fish) and fruit salad. Immediate members of the family partake of the food at 12 midnight after a short prayer led by a nominated family member to thank the good lord for all the blessings.
Gift giving is a universal tradition. In the Philippines, gifts that are received by each family during the season are stored under or beside a Christmas tree and they are not to be opened until after midnight of December 24th. After the ‘Noche Buena’ or midnight dinner, everyone will open a gift that is given by a member of the family. Each one would normally receive a gift from a member of the family. All other gifts are distributed to each recipient. In most cases everyone receives a gift including the household helpers.
For those who wish to celebrate and experience Christmas in the Philippines, the best way is to spend it with a typical Filipino family, one who is willing to share his household and family with you for the duration of the Christmas season. You will definitely feel the true spirit of Christmas. It is an experience worth remembering.