Tasting the Filipino Christmas
by Doreen G. Fernandez
The Filipino Christmas is said to be the longest in the world, starting on Dec. 16, with the first of the nine dawn masses (Misa de Gallo, or Mass at cock’s crow), and ending somewhat reluctantly on the first Sunday of January, Feast of the Three Kings. But even before December, the season is jump-started – not by the Christmas carols prematurely played on the airlanes, but by the earnest preparations for the celebration.
Housewives begin baking fruitcakes and steeping them in brandy to season. Others start fattening chickens for the relleno and galantine, perhaps even stuffing and freezing them in anticipation. The makers of parol, the star lanterns, cut and scrape bamboo for the frames and prepare the papel de Japon (tissue paper) for the covering and trim. Even busier are the barrio folk of San Fernando, Pampanga, whose traditional Christmas lanterns are giant, whirling multi-colored fantasies that must be transported on trucks and can only be built by the whole village, working as a community.
Especially busy are the makers of sweets – pastillas de leche, turrones – who must lay in supplies for the feasting and gift giving.
For food is at the center of the Philippine Christmas. The Filipino has accepted into the Christmas tradition celebrative elements from all contributors to the culture: the harvest feasting of the native pre-Hispanic tradition; the food and firecrackers from Chinese culture; the Christmas idea from Spain and Christianity, thus the crèches (Belen), the Novena Masses ending with Midnight Mass, the foods of the European Christmas, the play about the search for an inn (Panunuluyan); and from America the Christmas tree, Santa Claus, greeting cards, and gaily wrapped presents. All of these have gone into the long syncretic Christmas, and all of these come accompanied by food.
The food must be shared because community and family feeling are the core of the Filipino Christmas. More important than what is eaten is the fact of eating together, of the coming home of sons working in Saudi Arabia, daughters who are nurses in the US, and of whole sets of cousins and brethren from whatever part of the world has sheltered them before Christmas.
Come therefore, friend or colleague, and savor Christmas with us. Wake with us in the chilly dawn when the bells ring, and walk to church for a Mass joyous with music, sometimes including castanets and violins. Share the children’s anticipation of the food to follow: the bibingka of rice flour, milk, carabao cheese and salted eggs cooking in aromatic banana leaves on coal; the puto bumbong sprouting steaming out of upright bamboo tubes, to be eaten with grated coconut and sugar; the hot salabat, the ginger brew said to enhance the singing voice and save the throat, given free to all comers. The stalls around the churchyard may offer cuchinta brown with lye, or puto of various colors, chapes and textures, depending on the region – or may hold, as well as, arroz caldo, a chicken-and-rice congee of Chinese origin.
These are not the only breakfast but painit, food to warm the stomach and the heart. One could have many of these dawn specialties in hotel coffee shops, of course, because in the season they open early to service Mass-goers and tourists. But the tradition is to have them outside churches in the makeshift stalls.
The Noche Buena, night of goodness, is to the Filipino not just Christmas Eve, to which the term refers, but also, and specifically, the meal shared by the family after the midnight Mass. It is also called media noche, meaning midnight, because in some families no one is allowed to eat till after midnight Mass: one fasts, especially from meat, for this Christmas morning feast. It is not usually shared with guests, only with the nuclear family, the very closest and dearest.
What is on this midnight table? Whatever the family loves, whatever they can afford, whatever has traditionally meant Christmas to them. From the Spanish tradition are drawn the fruits and nuts (apples, grapes, oranges, chestnuts and walnuts); the ham (jamon China cooked in beer, baked with cloves, glazed with sugar); the stuffed chicken or turkey, hot and/or cold; perhaps a rich stew (cocido, pochero), the red ball cheese (queso de bola) eaten with ensaimadas (buttered, sugared brioches) and hot thick chocolate. From American Christmases we get fruitcakes, cookies, perhaps a baked turkey.
And it is definitely from the indigenous tradition that many rice cakes – biko, suman, puto maya, putong lusong, tupig patupat, linapet – come, since the harvest was celebrated with rice. In Vigan of old, a community fire was built to cook the tinubong – the rice mixture poured into bamboo tubes – while everyone was at midnight mass. The sound of media noche was thus the crackling of hot, charred bamboo tubes in hands eager to get at their steaming contents.
When folks neither have time nor personnel to cook all this at home, they turn to those who do. Thus, housewives treasure the telephone numbers of friends and cooks who bake hams, stuff chickens, take orders for ensaimadas. Many of these Christmas delicacies have also been adopted by restaurants and hotels into their Christmas Eve dinners or Christmas lunches. Visitors can therefore savor the tastes even without the surrounding family warmth, the excitement of children expecting tastes as well as presents, the joy of elders giving thanks for being together again, safe and well, at another Christmas.
And the feasting does not end there. One wakes up to breakfast (and some families decide that this is the time for opening presents) of ensaimadas, hot thick chocolate, ham and cheese slices. The children are then draped in finery and sent off with exhortations of good behavior to visit their grandparents, godparents, aunts and uncles. They are given presents – food, money, depending on custom and budget. Out come more rice cakes, but especially Spanish sweets: pastillas wrapped in cut-out tissue paper, turrones of almonds, pili or peanuts, castillos (castles of candies pastry), Brazo de la Reina and Brazo de Mercedes (meringue rolls), the golden glazed balls called yemas, the wickedly rich caramel custards in miniature cups call tocino del cielo.
The Manila visitor might not be able to duplicate this family-to-family, house-to-house munificence, but many of these delicacies are now the staple of Spanish bakeshops like Dulcinea, Giant ensaimadas are the specialty of Hizon’s, one of the oldest surviving bakeshops in Manila. The native rice cakes are found in markets, bakeshops (Aristocrat, Goldilocks), hotel cakeshops, and restaurants.
After Christmas Day, other specialties might be trotted out – embutido, morcon, paella, lechon – for different family aggrupations and occasions. Castanas continue to be sold in street stalls, because roasted chestnuts and their familiar scent are almost exclusively for Christmas. Parties and family reunions continue, for each married couple has at least two pair of parents with whom to spend time, and in large families adjustments must be made.
Yes, Christmas is family time, and its food comes from family traditions. These are available to the visitor, however, because hotels and restaurants have happily adopted the family traditions into the realm of public eating. Traveling, visiting another country, are all about experiencing the people and their lifestyles, and Christmas is one of the Filipino’s most precious statements of what they are.
Source: Fernandez, Doreen G. Mabuhay (Dec. 1997), p. 50+.