You’re probably wondering why we’re writing about Christmas in September, when Christmas is not even for another three months! But do you know who have already started their Christmas celebrations? The Filipinos! Yup, that’s right. When it comes to Christmas, no one celebrates it better than our next door neighbor.
The Philippines is known for celebrating the longest Christmas season in the world! In fact, the season starts once the months ending with “ber” hit your calendar and it officially ends on the first Sunday after the New Year. Talk about a celebration marathon!
With these long months of celebrations, the Filipinos have come up with their own unique traditions. Here’s what makes Christmas in the Philippines uniquely Pinoy.
Christmas in the Philippines is colorful, rich in traditions, bright and definitely twinkling. One of the most iconic symbols of Filipino Christmas spirit is the Christmas lantern or parol. The star-shaped lanterns are usually displayed outside the house and along the busy streets in cities, towns and villages.
Usually made of bamboo and covered in Japanese paper, the origin of parol can be traced back to the Spanish colonization era where it was used to light the way to church to attend Simbang Gabi (a Christmas mass). Nowadays, many communities hold competitions to see who can make the best parol! Fun fact: Early Filipinos based the parol on the Mexican piñata. The more you know!
Simbang Gabi (a.k.a Misa De Gallo in Spanish) is a series of nine masses held for nine days leading up to Christmas Eve. Not so bad, right? But, it’s usually held early in the morning, around 4 a.m.! The tradition was started by the Spanish friars to allow the farmers to hear the mass before they start working on the fields. However, traditions change over the years, and Simbang Gabi is now held in the evening to accommodate the modern lifestyle.
Another fun fact: Did you know Simbang Gabi was once banned in the Philippines? Colonial Filipinos missed nine years of Simbang Gabi services from 1680 to 1689 when a Vatican decree deemed the practice of singing Christmas songs in their native tongue to be perverse, and so, the Manila Archbishop Felipe Pardo ordered the services to be stopped. Although the practice did resume after his death until now.
Celebrating Christmas in a cemetery
Strange as it may sound, even the deceased can join in the Christmas fun. In Barangay Tanza, Iloilo City, the residents celebrate Christmas in a cemetery. Sounds weird? Not really. It actually started with a festive decoration competition because the cemetery workers said they wanted their annual staff party to be “more lively”. So, every Christmas, the cemetery is decked with twinkling Christmas decorations including lanterns, Christmas trees and even a Belen (nativity scene).
Filipino version of empty Christmas stockings
Historically, Filipino children didn’t hang up socks or stockings for Santa Claus. A tradition from the Spanish era, the tradition is set during Epiphany or the Feast of the Three Kings day. The children would leave their newest and shiniest shoes outside for the three kings to drop in goodies. Sometimes, children would also set up some grass and water as an offering to the kings’ camels. This Spanish-era tradition has all died out today, except in a few isolated areas of the country.
The first Christmas cards only came out in the 1950s
While Christmas cards are not printed in the Philippines until the 1950s, the concept was familiar due to a propaganda campaign by the Japanese. Well-aware of the Filipino’s love for Christmas, the Japanese utilized the holiday season as a propaganda against the Americans during World War II. They made a series of Christmas cards featuring Christmas messages, biblical quotes and anti-American slogans and these cards were distributed across the country as the day of liberation approached.
However, Manuel Rodriguez Sr. (a.k.a Father of Contemporary Printmaking in the Philippines) took the matter in his hands. He produced a Filipino-themed Christmas card in the 1950s containing pictures of the Simbang Gabi, Filipino churchgoers, and carolers.
We guess it’s not premature for us to wish you now, Maligayang Pasko! (It means Merry Christmas in Tagalog).