Philippines is the only country in Asia that is predominantly Christian. Ninety two percent of the total population is Christian; 81% of which belong to the Roman Catholic faith. This is why it is no surprise that the Philippines has the biggest Christmas celebration in whole Asia (if not the whole world).
Christmas is indeed “Merry” in the Philippines! Filipinos celebrate the season for as long as possible. As soon as September 1 arrives, people start to play Christmas songs and put festive decorations. Nationwide countdown starts on the 100th day before Christmas. Shopping malls promote pre-Christmas, Christmas, and post-Christmas sales. People are excited to spend their year-end bonuses to buy new stuff and to buy gifts for their loved ones. People in school and at work organize annual events that usually involve big parties, short out-of-town trips, charity works, concerts, programs, and daily/weekly monitor-monita (the Filipino version of Secret Santa).
In the Philippines you will never miss the vibe of the season because you will see and hear it every day in every way possible. Houses are decorated with Christmas lights, Christmas trees, parols (traditional lanterns), garlands, and wreathes. Parols are hanged in front of houses and establishments; this represents the star that guided the Wise Men to where the little boy Jesus was born. Bright and colorful parols can be seen everywhere; in schools, churches, malls, parks, even on the streets and highways. Areas near main streets and churches are packed with vendors selling various types of hot drinks and traditional sweet delicacies such as Bibingka, Kalamay (rice cake), Puto Bumbong, Coffee, Batirol (hot chocolate), Salabat (Ginger Tea). Children in small groups go house to house to wish the homeowners a merry Christmas while singing Christmas carols. This tradition is called pangangaroling. After their performance using improvised drums, maracas, and tambourines, the children will chant “Namamasko po!” Then, they will wait expectantly for coins or candies. Finally, the children will sing one last song with the lines “Thank you, thank you, ang babait ninyo (you are so kind), thank you!” to express their gratitude.
The formal celebrations start on the 16th December. This is when people wake up very early to attend the nine pre-dawn masses in their local church or chapel which usually starts at 4AM. This series of masses is called Misa de Gallo or Simbang Gabi, it is a way of thanksgiving and celebrating the upcoming delivery of Jesus Christ. Some people believe after completing all 9 masses, make a wish and it will most likely come true.
Another valued Filipino tradition is when family get together to celebrate Christmas Eve. As much as possible, loved ones from different parts of the country and the world come home. Everyone help prepare sumptuous meals and desserts for Noche Buena, the midnight feast that is prepared in every home. Most households would serve several dishes that traditionally include: ham, lechon (roasted pig), steamed rice, bulalo (a beef dish), leche flan (custard dessert), and fruit salad. Noche Buena is open for everyone to share; with relatives, friends, and even with random people in the community who would like to come by and greet everyone a “Merry Christmas!” It is an important Christmas tradition to Filipinos as it considered as the ultimate family event that symbolizes the solidarity of Filipino family. Usually after the feast, the family would gather near the Christmas tree to chat, to take photos, and to exchange and open presents and greeting cards.
On Christmas morning, children go out on the streets to visit and to pay respect to their godparents and older relatives. They do this by saying “mano po” while doing mano the act of placing the forehead on the back an elder’s hand may it be an aunt, an uncle, a grandparent, a ninong or a ninang (godparent), or anyone who is older. Most of the time, children are given candies, presents, and Aguinaldo (monetary gift) after greeting them “Merry Christmas po!” Another mass (the last one) is held on Christmas day itself. Again, family and friends attend it and go to various excursions after. Most people visit relatives from other places while some spend the rest of the day with friends.
The long Christmas celebrations do not stop on Christmas day. Not until the first Sunday of January when the Epiphany or The Feast of the Three Kings is commemorated.
Through the years, despite of all the ‘western’ influences, adapted by Filipinos; the culture, tradition, hope, positivity, and the genuine love for each other stay embedded in the hearts of the Filipinos. And these elements make Christmas in the Philippines remain warm and meaningful.