A Filipino Christmas
Every year at Christmas I alternate between a full-on Scrooge mode where I hate everything about the holiday, and a Tiny Tim persona where I love everything and everyone and all I want to do is listen to Christmas songs, watch Christmas movies and eat gingerbread cookies. I usually have my “Bah humbug” moments when I haven’t finished my shopping yet, or if I haven’t started wrapping any of the Christmas presents.
But I’m in a Tiny Tim mood right now, and so to capitalize on that and because there are only 2 days left (2 DAYS!), I wanted to share with all of you our traditions and how we celebrate Christmas in the Philippines.
The “BER” Months
They say that the Philippines has the longest Christmas season in the world. (And by “they”, I mean “we”). The moment the clock strikes September 1st, it’s officially the holidays so radios start playing Christmas songs. It’s become a tradition of who can play the songs the earliest. Of course they don’t play carols everyday, they just sort of get it started on September 1, then it tapers off until December, when it becomes full-blown.
Filipinos start decorating their houses and put up Christmas trees after the All Saints Day weekend. Some families start decorating even earlier, but with us borrowing the Halloween tradition from the US, it has moved to around November. Decorations are only taken down on the feast of the Three Kings, usually on January 6.
Simbang Gabi literally translates to Night Mass, but it’s actually more accurate to call it the Dawn Mass. This is a series of masses held everyday for 9 days, from Dec 16-24, and these services start at 4:30 in the morning. Can you imagine? It’s supposed to be a powerful novena or 9-day prayer, and we believe that if you complete all the masses, your special intentions will be granted. It becomes a badge of honor to finish the novena, because it’s practically impossible to interrupt your blissful REM sleep, tear yourself away from your cozy bed on these chilly December mornings and get up and go to mass. I for one have only completed this once in my life. I was probably in grade school or high school, back when I still had a holiday break. I remember the video of The Little Mermaid had just come out, and every morning after the service I would pop it in the VCR. So basically I watched The Little Mermaid every day for 9 days. There are other perks of getting up for the Dawn Mass though. The service finishes just as the sun rises, so you get a warm fuzzy feeling when you step out of the church. There are usually food stands outside, and neighbors gather for post-mass breakfast. Which brings us to the next Filipino tradition…
Puto Bumbong and Bibingka
These are two of the staples of any Filipino Christmas. Puto Bumbong is a purple rice cake cooked in bamboo tube steamers and served with sugar and grated coconut, wrapped in banana leaves. Bibingka is another kind of rice cake, but it’s spongy and light and usually served with extra toppings such as salted egg, rice grains, cheese or coconut. These are sold outside the churches for breakfast since everyone’s so hungry after the dawn mass. They’re warm and comforting and perfect to eat in the cold morning while watching the sun rise. People will just mill around outside the church eating their rice cakes and mingling with their neighbors.
This is the traditional Christmas Eve midnight meal. We Filipinos usually wait for midnight and start opening our presents at the stroke of 12. So of course we need a good meal to tide us over. Noche Buena is usually jamon or Christmas ham , quezo de bola or ball of edam cheese wrapped in red wax, hot chocolate, hot soup, macaroni and potato salad, and fruit salad with milk and cream. Yum-my! I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.
This is different from the Christmas Eve dinner, which is usually roasted stuffed chicken and the different salads. In our family, we started experimenting with different menus, especially since my brother started hosting our Christmas Eve parties. One year we’d have a Mediterranean menu, another year a traditional English one. But we miss the traditional meals my mom used to make, so every couple of years we go back to our homegrown menus.
This is our version of the Secret Santa. We also call it the Kris Kringle. We would draw the names of our “baby” or the person we’d have to buy the special gift for. But this is spread out over the four or five weeks before Christmas, and is separate from the gifts on Christmas Eve. Each week has a category for the gifts you can buy, like “something long and hard”, “something furry”, “something wacky”, etc. These are all supposed to be just gag gifts, and at the end there is a “revelation” where you have to guess who your mommy or daddy is. This is usually done in offices as part of company Christmas programs.
Our family is actually huge (counting all in-laws, nephews and nieces, there are 30 of us!), so we have our own Monito-Monita as well. The Sunday before Christmas Eve, we all go to Dawn Mass together, then have breakfast and give out our crazy gifts. We try to outdo each other with crazy and funny gifts, because of course you can be as wild when you’re giving gifts to family, right? Sometimes we’d set our categories as gifts that start with a certain letter, like S-No-W, and for S, someone will inevitably give just a can of sardines for the laughs. It’s one of the highlights of our holiday celebrations because it’s a chance to prank one another. Of course we have a higher budget for the revelation gifts, so we make up for it in the end.
Christmas Eve and opening of presents
So I mentioned that we don’t wait for Christmas morning to open our presents, right? But in our family, we don’t just exchange gifts and open them all together. Everyone gathers around the tree, and the “Santa” of the family (usually my older sisters) will give out the presents individually, and we would all wait until the person opens his gift so we can admire it. For every single person. So you can imagine it takes forever. When we were younger, we could afford to start at midnight. But then we ended up later and later, so now we start opening gifts at 10. But at at the stroke of 12 we stop and go around the room and greet everyone a Merry Christmas.
As I type this we’re just finishing up the last-minute wrapping, preparing our Christmas dresses and silly hats (another family tradition and something I want to take credit for – this was adopted from the English paper crown tradition, where every one in our family has to wear any crazy hat, though this year we prepared our own paper crowns as well), and generally preparing for the Eve festivities. We’re driving up to my brother’s house after lunch so we can all hang out and watch him cook.
So let me take this opportunity to greet everyone a Happy Holiday, and also say thank you for following this blog! I don’t know why you do, but thank you! See you next year! “God bless us, every one!”