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The Philippines: The Happiest Christmas Place On Earth

Updated on March 19, 2011
Filipino Christmas  Lantern
Filipino Christmas Lantern

How Is Christmas Like In The Philippines?


The Philippines is the largest predominantly Asian Christian Nation. And with a population of 90 Million and growing, that is large, especially for a relatively tiny country with a combined land area that is only about as big as the State of Arizona. For the longest time the Philippines is the only Christian Nation (predominantly Roman Catholic) in that part of the world, now it is joined by the small state of East Timor, land area of about 5,000 square miles.

I was born in the Philippines in the 1960s and have lived there for over 30 years. This year, I will be celebrating Christmas abroad for only the eighth time, now even though my immediate family is here (in the USA) to celebrate the season with, it is still not the same as it was back home.

Now there are lots of you who celebrate Christmas in your own unique way, but for me, when Christmastime comes, nothing beats how the Filipinos celebrate it. And although some Filipino families do celebrate Christmas differently, most share common practices and traditions that generations past and Filipinos today have kept for hundreds of years.

Now you may be a Filipino currently living abroad, or you may be a non-Filipino presently in the Philippines and you will be celebrating your first Christmas there or you may just be one nosy person just wanting to know how Christmas is like in the Philippines (whoever you are) this one’s for you.

JUST SO YOU KNOW this time of the year, the airline ticket prices to any part of the Philippines and of course prices of almost everything shoot up--although if you know where to shop you'd still find terrific bargains, the traffic is more horrendous than usual and it goes without saying the shopping conditions are even more chaotic. And the population of Manila, the Capital City is greater than that of the whole State of Arizona, yes just so you know how crazy it can get in there, if you do manage to be there for the holidays.

The Longest Christmas Celebrations In The World

The Philippines has rightfully earned the distinction as the place where the people celebrate the World's longest Christmas Season “Ang Kapaskuhan” (Pasko is the Tagalog term for Christmas).

If you don’t believe me, radio stations and television shows in the entire Philippines start the most important Filipino celebration as early as September the First. On this day people start playing Christmas Carols thus unofficially ushering the Filipino Christmas Season.

Yes you read right, September, remember the Philippines do not have Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and until recently no Halloween celebrations too and those other Holidays. And it’s almost a clear path from September the First to December the 25th.

Now the Filipino Christmas Celebrations slowly build up month after month starting with the first month that ends in “–ber” (or as they say, the Ber Months). But then it really goes full blast right after November the Second, as Filipinos pause to honor their dead on November 1st or the 2nd.

By December the First, all hell (literally and figuratively) would have broken loose all the way to December 25th and the day after Christmas. If you haven’t done any Christmas shopping by early December then you may have to be very forbearing, long-suffering, loving and patient to finish all your holiday shopping in time and in one piece.

In the meantime, with or without your sanity, the Filipino Christmas Season still continues until it gradually and reluctantly ends on January the Sixth or at the Feast of the Epiphany (or the Three Kings) celebrated by Catholic Filipinos on the First Sunday of January the following year.

Now some die-hards make one last hurrah and continue on until the Third Sunday of the first month of the year which is in essence still a continuation of the celebrations because that would be the Feast Day of the Infant Jesus or the “Santo Nino”. Yes, get it? The baby Jesus, well yes just in case you have seen those baby religious figurines.

But if they would have their way, many of those die-hard Filipinos would extend the celebrations the whole year too. Well some do leave their Christmas decorations or their Christmas lights up the whole year, so this really isn’t something that is hard to conceive.

Now how do Filipinos celebrate this most highly anticipated and revered holiday?

Hmmm, like this...

Normal Traffic Scene Near The Major Malls in Metro Manila
Normal Traffic Scene Near The Major Malls in Metro Manila

First The Sounds

As I have said, you can’t get enough of the Christmas Tunes and the Holiday Music in the airwaves and in television commercials and playing on certain TV shows.

But wait until you go to the corner grocery, or the supermarket, or the mall, or the bank, or eat out, use the elevator, in the restroom, or just about anywhere and you might want to put on earplugs. There is just no escaping it (so don't even try). Remember like more than 9 out of 10 people you'd meet everyday would be a Christian so it is not a place where you need to fear greeting anybody "Merry Christmas" and offend someone.

Don’t worry, the songs would be a mix of the old classics and the contemporaries. And there would be old and new songs in Tagalog so there would at least be some kind of variety anyway.

And it’s not like you hear them any other time of the year right? Except that when you think about it, close to five months out of the 12 in the year isn’t really a short period of time. Well, that’s probably why the ipod was invented.

Now if that isn’t enough, street carolers from all walks of life and ages will also start to serenade you with their own brand of Christmas cheer, many complete with homemade musical instruments ingeniously made from scraps and make some of the songs more annoying as it is.

Of course, the first few carolers you hear would be heavenly and thank God most Filipinos are known for their singing voice or at least their inherent skill to carry a tune or sing in tune.

But wait until, the carolers visit your door every five minute intervals and they start from dusk ‘til dawn, each and every day. Okay, I am exaggerating but a few days of that and it does feel like so.

So if you are running out of patience, if your ears are bleeding from the same lyrics over and over again, if you are riling from the noise coming from the makeshift musical instruments and if you have been spending a small fortune already and it’s not even December yet, then you better learn to shout this simple word. “Patawad!”

And if you say it right and at the right moment, preferably loud enough, on the first tune and if you sound like you really mean it, then you’d be sure that the few pesky carolers wouldn’t be back, nor would they recommend your house to others and they wouldn’t go back to your place, well until Christmas eve and Christmas day, which is Open Season for everyone, everywhere.

“Sa may bahay, ang aming bati! Merry Christmas na maluwalhati…”


Now, if a more organized group of carolers come to your place of residence or work or if they send you a notice beforehand that they would come visit you on a particular day and time. “Patawad!” wouldn’t work . I wouldn’t even try it myself.

Shame on you, where’s your Christmas Spirit? This is the Season of Giving!

Parol (Christmas Lanterns). Seen here are the lighted ones as two kids are looking on.
Parol (Christmas Lanterns). Seen here are the lighted ones as two kids are looking on.

Second The Sights

Now normally, each city, each town, each village, each municipality, each barangay (a smaller unit), each street, each homeowner’s association, and each building would have some sort of friendly but fierce competition on who’s going to have the most elaborate Christmas Decoration for the entire season, each and every year.

And it’s not like you are going to put it up on Christmas Eve and put it down two days later. If you remember, we are talking about a long period of time here, so your decorations shouldn’t just be looking good but it better be durable, it better be unique and it better be thrilling, colorful and breath-taking.

Midnight Mass
Midnight Mass

Third The Main Event

Now, one of the more important elements of the Filipino Christmas, particularly for the Roman Catholics, has been the Traditional Dawn Masses (Church Services), locally known in Tagalog as “Simbang Gabi” (Pre-Dawn Masses is another term used).

This is a series of nine masses starting on the early morning of December the 16th all the way to December the 23rd and ending on the night of Christmas Eve.

This tradition obviously goes back to the Spanish times (before that the people there were mostly Muslims).

Now in all the centuries during the Spanish rule of the islands, Filipinos have endured this ritual or “panata” or “novena” to attend all the nine daily masses, even though it is still very early in the morning, it is chilly and still dark when the masses start and they still have to go to work or school or do their chores afterwards.

Now, this tradition is not without its benefits. For one, traditionally it has been an excuse for young or young-at-heart lovers to meet for nine straight days and it is not uncommon for many local romances and relationships to start this way. And indeed, nighttime comes early and longer and all the cool nights and the chilly mornings are really made for romancing. And forget about the June Bride Myth, most weddings or marriages there are solemnized in the Month of December and yes many Filipinos have their birthdays in September or close to it.

“Malamig ang simoy ng hangin…”

Video: Merry Christmas Philippine Style

Kakanin, suman and many other treats.
Kakanin, suman and many other treats.

Fourth The Tastebuds

Okay, for the rest of us past this stage or still too young to think of romance, there is always the food.

if you have ever known a Filipino (and that wouldn't be that hard today as they are all over the planet now) you would be aware that one of their favorite pastimes is eating and some of them you just shake your head at as you see them constantly eating but you can't find it showing anywhere in their normally petite and slender figures.

Now churches, in the Philippines were normally the center of each and every town. The town market is normally built next to it and everything else would have been built around it.

But beside from that, all the street food vendors and those selling just about everything else would be crowding the gates and the streets leading to and from the churches so hot food and drink will be available to every sleepy-eyed and hungry parishioner. Yes even the one fighting a hangover or just coming home from the graveyard shift.

Now traditionally, certain native delicacies are served only during the Christmas Season and psychologically or not, these treats just seems to taste great during these early morning masses.

And among these are:

the “Puto bumbong” (no that is not a bad word, this is sticky rice treat steamed inside a "bumbong" a small bamboo tube, this is usually eaten with freshly grated coconut meat and sugar),

the “Bibingka” (okay this is a kind of a sweet rice cake normally with salted eggs, melted butter, sugar or syrup and fresh coconut meat on the side),

and a variety of “Kakanin” or “Suman” (steamed desserts normally wrapped in banana leaves)

And all these are best eaten freshly made and flushed down with a hot drink, such as the traditional hot tea, hot coffee, hot chocolate and hot “salabat” or ginger ale (tea). Now some drink something else but that’s maybe a mere continuation from their night-out of drinking.

Now, the main mass, would be the ninth one and this ends the “Simbang Gabi”. This particular one is called the “Misa de Gallo” (the Midnight Mass) because it starts very close to midnight of the 24th.

Now as I have said, most Filipinos are Roman Catholics but a good number of them are really devout and religious (“sarado-kandado”) and many do go to mass each and every Sunday and finish all the masses of the “Simbang Gabi”.

But for those who only come once, twice , thrice or four times year (like a big majority), this particular mass would on the top of that short list of must-attend masses.

Why? Because entire families normally attend the “Misa de Gallo” and it is also not uncommon for close relatives to attend together or even bring along close and long-term friends.

Now, after the Midnight Mass, which typically ends before Midnight—the start of Christmas Day, so the people can return to their respective homes and give time to families, relatives and close friends to gather together and partake of what could be the most important meal of the entire year.

This would be the Filipino Christmas Meal or the “Noche Buena”, traditionally right at the stroke of midnight, the 25th. Okay, if your entire family went to the midnight mass (you included), then you would have an excuse for not being at home to listen to the carolers who sent you a notice a week or a month before.

Now speaking of carolers, here is a tip, when you hear this from the neighborhood carolers, it means that you are generous:

“Thank you, thank you, ang babait ninyo. Thank you."

But if you hear this then, never mind:

"Thank you, thank you, ang babarat ninyo. Thank you!"

At least, they still said thanks.

Now the “Noche Buena Feast” would be a feast indeed. And among the more traditional favorites would be the "Lechon” (a whole roasted pig or even a whole roasted calf, or roasted chicken for some), served with a special sauce,

the “Hamon” (the Christman ham),

the “Queso de bola” (Edam cheese preferably made from Switzerland and one of two favorite brands which is pricier than most, especially the local ones),

the “Prutas” (Tropical and Imported Fruits), "Kastanyas" (Roasted Chestnuts), Fruit salads, Fruit cakes, Hot Soup or Stew, different kinds of “Pancit” (noodles), and all the traditional Filipino dishes and Filipino treats.

Okay after all the food and drink, family and friends, the singing and the dancing and the games, the next main thing would be the traditional exchange of gifts and the gift giving. Normally all the kids will get something from all the adults, their parents and especially their godparents.

Exchange of and giving gifts, giving Christmas cards to family, relatives, friends and loved ones is also widely practiced. This explains the chaos in the shopping malls and stores and the roads near them.

Now the next day, or the entire Christmas Day, will again be more of the same—attending mass now called the "Misa de Aguinaldo" (for those who didn’t go to the Midnight Mass), eating more food and more merrymaking and all the children visiting their godparents, and all elderly relatives, if not all the elderly in their location. And in many areas, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary that kids would go visit house to house and ask for “Aguinaldo” from any adult (a Christmas gift normally in the form of cash).


Fifth The Respect (And the Spirit of Christmas-Giving)

Traditionally, those under 21 or anybody younger would show respect by greeting everybody older than them by taking the right hand of the older person and kissing them or lightly touching them to their forehead this is called "Pagmamano" (this is some sort of a request for a blessing).

After this, the elder person will bless them with the traditional words and give them something in cash or in kind. Mostly in cash and with those crisp, freshly minted, nice smelling paper money that the Central Bank of the Philippines prints out just for this special occasion.

Yes, this is the best time of the year for all kids, old and young alike.

Now kids also have Christmas Parties at their schools, adults would have theirs in their work places and neighborhoods or homeowner associations or organizations would have their own, throughout the month of December. And it is not uncommon for people to attend four, five, six or more Christmas Parties throughout the entire Holidays.

Yes, more food, more drinks, more merriment and more gifts in cash and kind. As I have said, the best time of the year for the young and the old. Now depending on their bosses or on how their companies performed for the year, most bosses will give their employees an End-of-the-year Bonus, equivalent to a Paycheck. Some call that the 13th Month Pay. Yes, it’s like being paid 13 months for working 12 months in the year.

And this would be separate from any Christmas Bonus, which would be just more money given away. And many well-off companies and/or generous bosses would even give out 14th, 15th, or even 16th Month Pays. Yes, Merry Christmas indeed. Ho, ho, ho.

Now in some places, there will always be the traditional retelling of the Christmas Story or the "Panunuluyan". And in many rural areas, that would be the main highlight of the celebrations, well of course why wouldn’t it be as this was God’s Gift to humankind.

“Maligayang Pasko!” Merry Christmas!

Now there is another feast exactly a week later on New Year’s Eve, also at midnight. That midnight mass is now called the “Media Noche”.

The only notable difference is that on that day Filipinos will celebrate with lots of noise, lots of firecrackers and fireworks.

And don’t be confused when some people would start jumping up and down at the stroke of midnight or if they are wearing polka dots or certain colors. These and many more are just traditions past down from generation to generation. And all these are just normally to bring good luck (to those who believe) for the coming New Year. In the case of the jumping up and down, this is for those who wishfully think to grow a few more inches, normally for those who are vertically challenged. Well, it wouldn’t hurt to try, right?

And here is what I know about the polka dots or the attraction to anything round, such as fruits: these round thingies symbolize coins or cash or moolah. Ang stuffing one's pants with wads of cash, jiggling lots of coins in your pockets, wearing polka dot clothing and having a tray or basket full of fruits (preferably the rounds ones) at the stroke of midnight on January the first will all bring good luck for the new year--well at least to those who believe.

Happy New Year!

The Countdown To Next Christmas Begins

So see you in September. That would almost be like nine months later, and come to think of it this is like the nine months one would normally undergo to give birth (to a child).

There would be lots of work and sacrifices to be made especially working for the low wages in the country or the need to work abroad away from love ones and family because the pay overseas for the same amount of work is like ten times more. And of course work back home is just hard to come by.

And so like nine months later the fruits of all their labors comes out, and the celebrations begin.

And that is probably why most Filipino families will go all out during the Holidays because this is really like the time to celebrate after all the hardships and the sacrifices of the many of months that we likened to the child bearing and the giving birth.

And it is just apt that the Season or Christmastime is The celebration of the birth of the King, the Savior of humankind--the Hope and the Light especially for the weary,the poor and the oppressed.

And these are some of the reasons why the Filipino, wherever they may be in the world, will do whatever it takes to come back home for the Holidays and celebrate it with family, relatives and close friends in the Philippines – the Happiest Christmas Place On Earth!

“Kainan na!”


Now before you go, I'll leave you with this video of the World renowned and Multi awarded Philippine Madrigal Singers, singing "Deck The Halls" and "In Excelsis Deo" to serenade you this Christmas Season:

Now if you know something about music, you would know that for a relatively small group of people, this is not an easy thing to pull off especially sitting down and looking effortlessly. And in case you are wondering, yes they sang without any accompanying musical instrument, enjoy!

Video: Philippine Madrigal Singers

Christmas Encore

For generations of Filipino Families, Christmas is not Christmas without stopping by and standing outside the COD Shopping Mall in Cubao Quezon City during their Holiday Shopping rush runs to watch the COD Christmas Moving Display. I understand that since the 1960s COD has been doing this and it is part of their yearly Christmas celebrations. I also read that this tradition goes back to their first store in Manila back in the 1950s.

Today, since the COD Department Store in Cubao (near the Ali Mall and the Araneta Coliseum) has closed down, I understand that the Displays have found a new home at nearby Greenhills Mall in Greenhills, Ortigas Avenue.

I found this video from the current Christmas 2010 Display:


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