Whole roasted pork instead of turkey. Humidity instead of snow. Baby Jesus instead of Frosty. Special rice cake desserts instead of pies. And staying up to wait for mass instead of Santa Claus. Yup. A Filipino Christmas is definitely no ordinary one. Here are 10 things you need to know if you plan on celebrating Christmas in the Pearl of the Orient.
1.) Philippines has the longest Christmas season. Starting as soon as September hits, the “Ber Months”, as what Filipinos like to call it (September-December), Christmas decorations begins popping up everywhere. Christmas songs are inevitable especially in the malls, and bright Christmas lantern for sale begins to line up in the streets. Countdowns on the television or the radio is an actual norm. It’s not excitement, it’s the culture. There’s no doubt that Filipinos love Christmas. So, don’t be surprised when you get invited at someone’s home and they’re already decked out in early November.
2.) Christmas in the Philippines is more of a religious holiday than a cultural holiday. With the Philippines being the most Catholic dominated country in Asia, it’s no surprise that Filipinos take Christmas very seriously. Although it has become a cultural tradition, Christmas is celebrated in the Philippines to honor the birthday of Jesus. And though the Filipinos has adapted western practices for Christmas celebrations, they still prioritize its religious importance. So sorry Santa and Snow Man, you’re not that special here.
3.) Simbang Gabi or Christmas mass begins on December 16th. From then until Christmas Eve, masses are held daily at different times of the day, starting as early as 3 am. Locally called as Simbang Gabi, which literally translates to evening mass, it is believed that when you complete all 16 days, a wish of yours just might come true. But whether you’re not Catholic or you’re just not religious at all, you might still enjoy going outside the church to catch some amazing street food. Don’t miss out on a local dessert called Puto Bumbong, which is a staple Christmas season munchie.
4.) Noche Buena or midnight supper is a traditional way of spending Christmas Eve. Did I tell you Filipinos love to eat? Though many family also welcomes Christmas Day at a midnight mass, Noche Buena is a feast highly looked forward to with the entire family. Families prepare for the feast the entire day and finally gathers together around the dinner table at midnight (or after the mass). The table is beautifully set with fresh fruits in the center and an abundance of food is laid out. Turkey’s not a thing here, but instead, hams are served, or better yet, a whole roasted pig! After a good degustation over traditional Filipino dishes, exchanging of presents are done.
5.) Caroling is the equivalent of trick or treating in the Philippines. Except children are actually hustling for money, not candies. As early as November, children carolers start to invade the streets with tin cans and a stick (or coins) to make music with as they go from one house to the next singing Christmas carols. At the end of their carols, they scream out “namamasko po“(which roughly translates to “wishing you a merry Christmas”) over and over again until someone opens the door and hands them money. A little annoying? Yes. But don’t worry, you can easily send them away politely by saying “patawad“.
6.) Parol, or Christmas lantern, is the essential decoration for the season. Although putting up Christmas trees are also practiced in the nation, nothing indicates Christmas more than bright lanterns in the shape of a star. Varying in colors and styles, parol can be seen blinking happily outside the homes of Filipinos. Come September and vendors are already lined up selling these Christmas symbol already! With its vibrance and glimmer, I think parol definitely beats a wreath any time.
7.) Christmas is a great time for children. Not only do their parents deck them out with new outfits, or shower them with a surplus of presents, but it’s a good time for children to ask for money too. On Christmas day, it’s a tradition for children to visit their godparents (and Filipinos traditionally have a lot of them), relatives, and even neighbors to receive money, known as aguinaldo. This is the equivalent of Chinese handing out red envelopes to kids on Chinese New Year.
8.) Holiday madness is real. I guess the holiday rush applies to most countries, but Manila is on another level. Traffic jams, full parking, and EXTREMELY crowded malls are just some of the common inconveniences you may experience during the season. And you think it would end come Christmas Day, but no. Unlike the US, there’s no Black Friday sale here, so most people look forward to Christmas Day sales.
9.) Christmas block parties are always poppin’. Some neighborhood likes to celebrate Christmas together, so it’s nothing out of the ordinary to see some streets closed down. With chairs and tables blocking the street and karaoke machines on blast, be prepared for an all-nighter.
10.) Prepare to witness Christmas like it’s on crack. 90 days of countdown should be enough to let you know that Filipinos take this holiday to the extremes. Sure, it’s completely a different experience, but it would still put you in the right spirit. The kids may not believe in Santa Claus and snow may be replaced with humidity, but the spirit of the locals just might make you less of a Grinch that you are. Get yourself invited by a local and witness how much Filipinos cherish their families. It might not exactly put you in the holiday mood you’re accustomed to at this time of the year, but it’s definitely a Christmas experience you will never forget.
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