By Gus Mercado

The Christmas holiday seems, universally, to be a time of renewal, goodwill, of hope and magic, regardless of race, nationality or religion. The universal tale of a humble family facing great hardships during the birth of a child is complete with miracles, wise kings, evil forces, and lowly shepherds. Marking the beginning of one of the world’s major religions, the birth of Christ became a turning point in the history of the world. Throughout the history of Christmas, local customs intertwined with religious significance to bring extraordinary depth to the holiday.

Simple Noche Buena in a typical happy home.

More fun in the Philippines
Christmas in the Philippines is like no other. Of all the countries in the world, it is in the Philippines where the ceremony and festivities are longest and arguably most religious. It is no wonder that visiting overseas Filipinos, called “Balikbayans” choose to come at Christmas time over any other time of the year. Every time we go home, the celebration seems to get longer and longer. It used to start on December 1 but now Filipinos start celebrating as early as September, as chilly winds and Christmas carols start filling the air.

There is even a place in Central Luzon called the “Paskuhan Village” where Christmas is celebrated year-round.

There is something magical about the season that stimulates the Filipino psyche to prepare early and enthusiastically for the world’s most elaborate celebration. For nine days before Christmas most Filipinos rise at 4:00 a.m. to attend Mass, “Simbang Gabi” at the Catholic churches throughout the archipelago. After the religious ceremonies, families enjoy morning snacks with neighbors and friends and stroll through the bazaar of shops and food vendors that line the streets, taking in the salivating aroma of salabat and puto-bumbong.
The official 21-day celebration in the Philippines dates back to the 16th century, when Pope Sixtus V decreed that in the Philippines pre-Christmas dawn Masses should start on December 16. Apart from coinciding the Masses with the nine-day festivals celebrated across the islands during this special period, the decree gave farmers the chance to pray before setting out for the fields at sunrise. So nine days plus the European-inspired 12 days of Christmas, from December 25 to January 6, add up to 21 days of holidays, the longest celebration in the world.

The well-to-do prepare grand feasts.

Inimitable Filipino creativity and pageantry
No other country beats the Philippines in imagination, creativity and pageantry. While fir trees are not plentiful in the tropics, Filipinos decorate palms and other vegetation with bright ornamentation. The tree decors can include tiny star lanterns, candies, fruits tied with ribbons, small wood or bamboo carvings, small baskets, glittered items like garlands and icicles, and even empty match boxes wrapped like presents. To give trees a cold-weather climate look Filipinos make snow from shaved and melted soap bars or cotton.

Christmas Caroling in the Philippines
Once the “Simbang Gabi” starts, children like to form groups and enjoy hopping from one house to another every night singing Jingle Bells, Silent Night and traditional Filipino Christmas songs. They are usually rewarded with cash, meals or treats.

Dazzling celebration of Christmas in the outlying islands of rural Philippiines.

The repertoire of the carolers usually comprises of an eclectic mix of traditional Tagalog classics like “Ang Pasko as Sumapit” (originally a 1933 Cebuano song entitled “Kasadya Ning Taknaa” and popularized by Filipino musician Levi Celerio), to popular western Christmas favorites like Jingle Bells, White Christmas, Winter Wonderland, Silver Bells, the melancholic White Christmas and Oh Holy Night and the whimsical Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and Grandma Got Run over by a Reindeer!

Dazzling celebration of Christmas in the outlying islands and villages of rural Philippines
Display of Treasured Filipino Traditions and Values

Filipino children wear their new clothes to mass and then visit members of the extended family, notably the elders in order to pay their respect. This custom has been an age-old tradition in the Philippines called “Pagmamano” which is done by touching one’s forehead to the elder’s hand saying “Mano Po”. The elder then blesses the person who paid respect with “Aguinaldos” which can be in the form of a gift, money or toys, most usually to younger children who are also treated to sumptuous meals. Well-to-do families tend to prepare grand and glorious feasts while other families choose to cook simple meals, nevertheless still special.

The Filipino Parol – a Source of Inspiration and Hope.
Whether or not the Christmas star became visible in Asia remains a mystery. However, it is certain that Filipinos were so beguiled by the nativity of baby Jesus that hanging a parol – the ubiquitous home-made Filipino star lantern – has been every home’s tradition for generations.

The parol began as the simple Spanish farol, the lantern used for everyday illumination and martial signals. Dressed up, the farol figured in religious processions and civic parades. The Las Piñas Church in southern Metro Manila warms chilly December days with a bevy of hundreds of star-shaped lanterns, welcoming the faithful to the nine-day dawn masses that culminate in the Christmas Midnight Mass.. They are a favorite Christmastime motif in churches, houses, office buildings and shopping malls throughout the islands.

Now, the masterfully crafted electronic parols with dazzling kaleidoscopes of light patterns dominate every Philippine city and town and are now also being exported to the U.S. As a beneficiary of one of our Phil-Am Chamber’s trade missions to the Philippines, Emilie McSweeney of Lantana, Texas now imports the modern parols by container loads from San Fernando, Pampanga for U.S. distribution.

Just as the Star of Bethlehem led the shepherds and the Magi to the manger, so too do the iconic parols usher in the Christmas spirit in every Filipino home, with fervor burning in every Filipino heart. It imbibes a spirit of peace and harmony among the spiritually inclined and the optimistic, and gives hope to the underprivileged.

Christmas Filipino Style in the Philippine Barangays.