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Keeping the Traditions Alive

By: Joan Mae BarredoKeeping the Traditions Alive

If there were international competitions recognizing the country with longest Christmas celebration, the Philippines would have surely bagged the title. This predominantly Christian nation in Southeast Asia is known to have the world’s longest and most lavish festive celebration in which countdown to Christmas Day begins as early as September. At this time, popular Yuletide carols can already be heard playing from different radio stations nationwide.

Department stores would begin displaying Holiday-themed decors, and even a good number of shoppers would get a head start in ticking their Christmas shopping list. Moms would also begin taking out their well-kept Christmas ornaments to adorn their homes with lights and lanterns. This festive mood would build up until Christmas Day. As if they couldn’t get enough, Filipinos would extend Holiday celebrations until the Feast of the Three Kings in January.

But what really makes Christmas in the Philippines extraordinary? Here are five traditions that are uniquely Filipino, affirming that Christmas is indeed more fun in the Philippines.

Decorating homes with parols and the belen

For Filipinos, Christmas is truly in the air when they see homes and establishments being tidied and brightened up with different Christmas decors. It has become a tradition for Filipino families to spend time together designing their homes with basic furnishings like Christmas lights and Christmas trees.

While Western Christmas symbols like the image of Santa Claus and bits of snowflakes have become more present in some Filipino homes, Christmas decorating won’t be complete without the presence of classic local emblems like parols and the belen.

The parol is a star-shaped lantern which represents the story of the Three Kings and how a star guided them towards the town of Bethlehem on the night Jesus was born.  It is made from simple materials like bamboo sticks and colored papers. But since Filipinos are creative in nature, some would create parols with lavish designs while others place a lighting inside to illuminate the night.

Usually placed near the Christmas tree or the altar, the belen is a tableau of the nativity scene, complete with the figurines of Mary, Joseph, a few shepherds, three angels, the Three Kings bearing their special gifts and a number of farm animals like a donkey and an ox. The figure of the baby Jesus is the centerpiece of the belen which is depicted as the most important symbol of the Christmas spirit. It also sets the atmosphere when sharing with children the story of how Jesus was born and how he serves as a reminder of God’s love to mankind.

Attending the Simbang Gabi

As the Christian faith is imperative to the Filipino identity, religious practices will always be a deep-seated part in every Pinoy holiday celebration. One unique Filipino Christmas custom is attending the novena masses celebrated at three or four o’clock in the morning, nine days leading to Christmas Day. These “night masses” commonly known as the Simbang Gabi or the Misa de Gallo, are held in many churches and attended by most Filipino families. This cherished tradition not only increases the anticipation for Christmas Day but also demonstrates our faith and deep connection with God and his Son, Jesus.

It has also been a practice for churchgoers to enjoy Filipino delicacies like the bibingka and the puto bumbong after hearing the mass. Filipinos also strongly believe that when they complete the nine Simbang Gabi, their Christmas wish will come true.

Caroling with friends

During the first night of the Simbang Gabi, you can expect to see kids and kids-at-heart alike visiting from one house to another while singing Christmas carols. What makes caroling more fun is the use of handmade instruments like drums made from old cans and tambourines made from flattened aluminum bottle tops. Carolers would sing their hearts out, from all-time favorites like Jingle Bells and Joy to the World to local Christmas hits like Pasko na Naman and Ang Pasko ay Sumapit.

Members of the household would welcome them, sometimes even sing with them just to spread the spirit of the season. After which, they would then hand these carolers some coins locally known as an aginaldo as the latter end their caroling with We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

Filipinos love to do this with their friends, classmates, churchmates, and officemates. Money collected are usually used to buy gifts for the less fortunate, living up the heart of Christmas—which is giving—in their own little way.

Exchanging of gifts

Another quality that the Filipinos are known for is their being hospitable and gallant. It extends not just to visitors and friends but also to work colleagues and even to people they barely know! One thing students and workers look forward to during the Holiday season is their Christmas party. Colorful Christmas-themed venues, outfits, and festivities characterized this joyous event.

A Christmas Party in the Philippines will not be complete without a sumptuous meal (but of course that is already a given) and the contemporary practice of exchanging gifts or the Kris Kringle, where the person they are going to give their gifts to are given the moniker Monito (for boys) and Monita (for girls).

Preparing for Noche Buena

For a country where food is a fundamental part of the culture, how else do Filipinos make their Christmas celebration perfect? Of course, by gathering together with their loved ones and enjoying a well-prepared festive meal on Christmas Eve—a traditional feast called noche buena. While this practice stems from the Philippine’s colonial history, many Filipinos value this gathering up to this day.

Family members living and working in other places or even in other countries would always make it a point to go home during the holidays. During noche buena, most Filipino families would meticulously fill their table with cakes and fruits while others complete their Yuletide feast with Filipino favorites like rice cakes or bibingka, hamon de bola and, of course, the star of every Filipino feast, lechon.

But more than just enjoying the feast, noche buena signifies close family ties and a form of thanksgiving. Although Filipinos tend to celebrate the holidays in many ways, still spending time with their family and loved ones is regarded as the most important part of Christmas.

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