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Maligayang Pasko: The Evolution of Christmas in an Asian Land
by [Mario I. Miclat]
Date: 12/2/2005

“Christmas in the Philippines, so the old folks say, is children’s day. But the children may have a different idea. Christmas may even be a dreadful day for them. You see, their elders would wake them up very early in the morning. They would be washed, dressed, and decorated with all the earthly things that are new, expensive, and beautiful—silk shoes, wide-brimmed hats, warm thick clothes, not to mention the four or five scapular medals containing the gospels of St. John. So bedecked, they would be carried to the full-packed church for the high mass, where they would be made to bear almost one full hour of heat, sweat, and humanity’s smells while praying the rosary or just plainly remaining quiet, feeling bored or made to sleep. Now, each time they move, or do something which might barely soil their outfit, they would be bawled out and pinched. What is so happy about that? They could not even laugh. In their big round eyes, one would see a note of protest, a protest against so much ornamentation and a longing for the sweet old play shirt they wear everyday.

That is not all. They would be dragged from one relative’s house to another, asked to kiss the hands of all those who matter, and whether they are in the mood or not, whether the clothes they wear are comfortable or not, they would be made to sing, dance, or show all the amusing things they know. Do they have a choice? Well, that would be inviting another round of pinching and scolding. Anyway, they would be given money by their relatives. Their parents would take it from them to keep, and to keep forever. The only good things they get from the holiday are the marks of the pinches, the irritating experience, and the stomach trouble resulting from too much eating of cakes and sweets in the houses they visit. But it is the tradition, the Filipino children’s baptism of fire, which would prove, as they will realize later, the least sad, the least harsh in their lives.

The adults, who are supposed to be leading their own lives already, take part in these celebrations, too. They visit their parents and in-laws, bow to them, and wish them a merry Christmas. What do they get in return? Well, a piece of cake, some fruit, a glass of water, or some token gift.”

Jose Rizal
El Filibusterismo, 1891

(Retold by MIM, 1989)

The Philippines celebrates the longest Christmas season in the world. Not because radio stations begin broadcasting Christmas jingles in September (or October, depending on the economic situation). Or because department stores start mounting their Christmas sales at the same time that they start selling candles for All Saints’ Day. But because, way back in the sixteenth century, Pope Sixtus V decreed that in the Philippines, pre-Christmas dawn masses would be held starting Dec. 16. The decree was in keeping with the nine-day festivals of Filipinos to celebrate special occasions. It was also meant to give farmers a chance to hear mass before setting out for the fields. Filipinos were used to starting the day hours before sunrise.

So, nine days plus the European twelve days of Christmas from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6 make eighteen days of Christmas holidays in the Philippines.

Changing the dates of celebrating Christmas was not really unusual. Since the actual date of Christ’s birth had never been recorded, Christmas used to be celebrated only for a day, on Jan. 6. How dull the celebration was compared to the festival marking the end of the winter solstice—the longest night of the year—which fell on the eve of Dec. 25. To co-opt the people away from this pagan ritual, the church started celebrating the birth of Christ on the same day as the festival. The celebration culminated in the old Christmas day, which was now referred to as the Feast of the Three Kings. In recent years, another change has taken place with the Feast of the Three Kings celebrated on the first Sunday after New Year.

Traditionally, on the first day of dawn mass (misa de gallo or simbang gabi) lanterns were hung from windows to light the way of early church goers. A lantern (parol) was usually made of bamboo strips which served as the skeleton of a five-pointed star and was covered with colored rice paper (papel de japon) lavishly decorated with paper cuts and trimmings. A newly arrived Chinese once mistook a parol for a wreath of artificial flowers.

Stalls selling native delicacies were set up in church courtyards. Devotees visited these stalls to eat after the mass to happily end at least three hours of abstinence required of communicants. Served were bibingka, puto bumbong, salabat, and tea. Bibingka is a rice cake cooked in clay ovens fired by charcoal both from below and from above. Puto bumbong is a rice roll spread with margarine and fresh coconut strips mixed with sugar. It is made from purple mountain rice called pirurutong and steamed in bamboo tubes. Salabat is hot ginger ale.

Carolers went from house to house either before or after the simbang gabi, relating in songs how Joseph and Mary tried to look for an inn to give birth to Jesus but instead found a stable. This practice is called the panunuluyan. Carolers were offered some food or money by the host.

Figurines depicting the birth of Christ in a belen were also displayed in affluent homes. Today the nativity scene has been replaced by Christmas trees, a German tradition adopted by Americans and brought to the Philippines.

Christmas Eve was a time for family reunions. After midnight mass (or misa de aguinaldo), the whole family gathered together to partake of native delicacies, imported foodstuff from China like ham, apples, grapes, and chestnuts; and from Europe and America like cheese, fruitcake, and wine. The meal was called the noche buena.

The children exploded firecrackers for a while or fired bamboo cannons. The more powerful firecrackers and cannon explosions were reserved for New Year’s Eve. Cannons were made of thick bamboo tubes about two meters long, with a closed bottom and an open mouth. Through a small hole on top of the bamboo tube near the bottom, one poured either carbide or kerosene or water. He blew into the hole and then applied a lighted match. The cannon produced a big bang.

These traditional ways of celebrating Christmas have been replaced by modern forms. A number of Filipinos decry the modern ways which they term Westernization. They forget the fact that Christmas itself is a Western tradition, Filipino culture basically Hispanic, and therefore Western, amidst an Oriental background. In reality, each generation just adds other features to the tradition to stamp it with its own identity.

If anything is to be decried at all, maybe it is the commercialization of the celebration. Often, parents, godparents, and elders have to spend a whole year’s savings to buy presents for their friends, relatives, and wards. It seems only the children do not have to spend during the holidays. Well, as the old folks say, Rizal’s observations notwithstanding, Christmas is the Filipino holiday for children.

Source: Students’ Philippine Almanac, published by Filway Marketing, Inc., c1991, p. 550-553

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