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December 25, 2006

Filipino Christmas traditions

J0353836 Don't get me wrong -- I love White Christmases, with all the pretty snow and cozy fires.  And I really enjoy the holiday season here in the Bay Area, with all the lights and activities.  But to my mind, nothing beats the Filipino Christmases of my childhood.  Christmas is the one time I really wish I lived back home.  I haven't lived in Manila for over 12 years, and the last Christmas I spent there was in 1998, but I'm homesick just thinking about it. 

The Philippines probably has one of the longest holiday seasons in the world.  Since we have no Thanksgiving holidays, the decorations go up and the radio stations start playing carols right after Halloween.  We celebrate all throughout December, all the way till January 6th, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the Feast of the Epihpany.  Every single person, rich or poor, gets into the spirit of the holidays.  The Filipino traditions of hospitality and generosity come into full force.  There are parties everywhere -- rich or poor, people invite friends and family into their homes to share whatever they have. 

Absolutely everything, from streetlights to billboard displays, is decked out for the holidays.  Because a great many Filipinos live below the poverty line, people in the city who cannot afford to decorate their own house make it a point to go out and enjoy all the beautiful decorations -- the rich neighborhoods, shopping malls, and especially the hotels.  Every year my family would designate an evening to go hotel-hopping to listen to carolers singing traditional English and Filipino carols, and gawk at the beautiful lobby displays.

Being one of the most Catholic countries in the world, Christmas is inexorably and prominently linked to the birth of Christ.  The nativity scene (or belen, as we call it), rather than Santa and his reinder, is proudly displayed in households, shopping malls, office buildings and hotels.  In addition to Christmas lights, Filipinos hang star-shaped lanterns, or Parols, which represent the Christmas star that the three kings followed all the way to Bethlehem.  Some parols are simply homemade from sticks and tissue paper, others are elaborately lit creations made of exquisite capiz shell.

Another popular Filipino Christmas tradition is the Misa de Gallo (or mass of the rooster), that people attend at 5AM, every day from December 16 to 24.  We could never wake up early enough to complete all 9 days, but we always tried, year after year, if only to enjoy the piping hot Christmas treats that vendors sell after mass -- tsokolate (hot cocoa), puto and bibingka (both sweet rice cakes).  Early morning is also the one time that the temperature was chilly enough for people to show off their rarely-used sweaters!

Our big Christmas feast actually happens on midnight of the 24th.  After midnight mass (or Simbang Gabi), we head back to my grandmother's home for a huge Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) feast, complete with ham, fetuccine, turkey and a whole roast suckling pig (lechon).  This may sound like an abundance of food (and it is), but my grandmother has seven children and twenty-eight grandchildren, all of whom converge on her house for the big eat-a-thon.  Everybody exchanges presents with everybody, so by 1AM the living room is always a sea of wrapping paper, new toys and excited children.  Our parents would alway try to make us nap in the afternoon so that we could stay up for the feast, but we were always too excited to sleep a wink, and excitement would carry us all the way to 3AM. 

It's pretty difficult to recreate that Filipino Christmas here in Palo Alto, even with the huge Filipino community in the Bay Area.  This year, my parents and sisters are spending Christmas here in Palo Alto with me, but at 4PM PST (just when the clock is striking midnight in Manila), our hearts will be at home with my grandmother, brothers and the rest of our extended Filipino family.  Maligayang Pasko (Merry Christmas) -- there's no place like home!


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Don't get me wrong -- I love White Christmases, with all the pretty snow and cozy fires. And I really enjoy the holiday season here in the Bay Area, with all the lights and activities. But to my mind, nothing beats the Filipino Christmases of my child... [Read More]