Christmas in the Philippines, one of two predominantly Catholic countries in Asia (the other one being East Timor), is one of the biggest holidays on the calendar. The country has earned the distinction of celebrating the world's longest Christmas season,<ref>Filipino Christmases around the world. Philippine Star. Retrieved on 2007-12-26.</ref><ref>Nita Umali Berselsen. The Longest Christmas. Living in the Philippines. Retrieved on 2007-12-26.</ref> with Christmas carols are heard as early as September and the season lasting up until Epiphany.
There are various ethnic groups in the Philippines with different Christmas traditions. The following illustrates common activities for celebrating Christmas in the Philippines.
In urban areas, especially in Metro Manila, many schools and offices organize Christmas parties, which are usually held during the second week of December, or right before schools and universities go on holiday. Common activities include Kris Kringle, song and dance numbers, a skit or play, and parlor games. Food is provided either through a potluck, or via monetary contributions to buy food.
Misa de Gallo
Traditionally, Christmas Day in the Philippines is ushered in by the nine-day dawn masses that start on December 16. Known as the Misa de Gallo (Rooster's Mass) in the traditional Spanish and in Filipino as Simbang Gabi, or "Night Mass", this novena of Masses is the most important Filipino Christmas tradition.
These nine dawn Masses are also considered as a Novena by the Catholic and Aglipayan faithfuls. This refers to the Roman Catholic and Aglipayan practice of performing nine days of private or public devotion to obtain special graces.
In some parishes, the Simbang Gabi begins as early as four o'clock in the morning. Going to mass this early for nine consecutive days is meant to show the churchgoer's devotion and faith as well as to heighten anticipation for the Nativity of Jesus. In traditional Filipino belief, however, completing the novena is also supposed to mean that God would grant the devotee's special wish or favour.
After hearing Mass, Filipino families partake of traditional Philippine Christmastime delicacies, either during breakfast at home or immediately outside the church, where they are sold. Vendors offer a wealth of native delicacies, including bibingka (rice flour and egg based cake, cooked using coals on top of and under the pastry), puto bumbong (a purple sticky rice delicacy which is steamed in bamboo tubes, with brown sugar and shredded dried coconut meat served as condiments), salabat (hot ginger tea) and tsokolate (thick Spanish cocoa). In some Aglipayan churches, after the mass everybody is invited to partake the "painit" (after mass snacks of delicacies with hot coffee or tsokolate) at the house of the sponsor of the mass.
In recent times, even the Evangelical Christians, and other independent Christian Churches have started holding services in the early mornings like the ones that are being done by the Catholics and some Mainline Protestants.
For Filipinos, Christmas Eve ("Bisperas ng Pasko") on December 24th is celebrated with the Midnight Mass, and immediately after, the much-anticipated Noche Buena – the traditional Christmas Eve feast. Family members dine together around 12 midnight on traditional Noche Buena fare, which includes: queso de bola (Spanish: "ball of cheese"; this is actually edam cheese), "Tsokolate" (a hot chocolate drink) and jamon (Christmas ham). Some would also open presents at this time.
In different provinces and schools throughout the Philippines, Catholic devotees also reenact the journey of Joseph and the pregnant Blessed Virgin Mary in search of lodging for the soon-to-be born Jesus Christ. This is the traditional "Panunuluyan'", also called "Pananawagan" and "Pananapatan".
This street pageant is performed after dark on Christmas Eve, with the actors portraying Saint Joseph and Saint Mary going to pre-designated houses. They chant a traditional folksong that is meant to wake up the owner of the house and to request ask for lodging. But the couple (actors) are turned away by the owners, also through a song. Finally, Joseph and Mary make their way to the parish church where a simulated manger has been set up. The birth of Jesus is celebrated at midnight with the Misa de Gallo, together with hallelujahs and Christmas carols. Everybody celebrates this tradition happily yet solemnly.
Christmas Day in The Philippines is primarily a family affair. The Misa de Aguinaldo is celebrated on December 25. It is usually attended by the whole family. Misa de Aguinaldo is the Holy Mass to celebrate the birth of Jesus. In the Roman Catholic Church and the Philippine Independent Church (Aglipayan), it is the main means of celebrating Jesus Christ's birth.
The Misa de Aguinaldo is often celebrated between sunrise and 10 a.m., a schedule preferred by many Filipinos who stay up late on Christmas Eve for the night-long celebration of the Noche Buena.
Preferably in the morning, Filipino families visit members of the extended family, notably the elders in order to pay their respects. This custom of giving respect has been an age-old tradition in the Philippines called "Pagmamano"; this is done by touching one's forehead to the elder's hand saying Mano Po. The elder then blesses the person who has paid respect. "Aguinaldo", or money in the form of crisp, fresh-from-the-bank bills is given after the Pagmamano, mostly to younger children.
A Christmas Lunch usually follows after the "Pagmamano". The lunch is heavily dependent upon the finances of the family. Rich families tend to prepare grand and glorious feasts that consist of Jamon de Bola, Queso de Bola, Lechon and other Filipino delicacies. Some poor families choose to cook simple meals, nevertheless still special. When the family is settled after the lunch, the exchange of gifts is usually done. Godparents are expected to give gifts or Aguinaldo to their godchildren.
When nighttime falls, members of the family usually take part in family talks while listening to favorite Christmas carols. Some may opt to have a glorious Christmas feast for dinner.
Niños Inocentes is commemorated on December 28 as Holy Innocents' Day or Childermas in other countries. The innocents referred to are the children who were massacred by order of Herod, who was seeking the death of the newborn Messiah.
New Year's Eve
On December 31, New Year's Eve ("Bisperas ng Bagong Taon"), Filipino families gather for the Media Noche or midnight meal – a feast that is also supposed to symbolize their hopes for a prosperous New Year. In spite of the yearly ban on firecrackers, many Filipinos in the Philippines still see these as the traditional means to greet the New Year. The loud noises and sounds of merrymaking are not only meant to celebrate the coming of the New Year but are also supposed to drive away bad spirits. Safer methods of merrymaking include banging on pots and pans and blowing on car horns. Folk beliefs also include encouraging children to jump at the stroke of midnight so that they would grow up tall, displaying circular fruit and wearing clothes with dots and other circular designs to symbolize money, eating twelve grapes at 12 midnight for good luck in the twelve months of the year, and opening windows and doors during the first day of the New Year to let in the good luck.
Three Kings (First Sunday of the year)
Christmas officially ends on the Feast of the Three Kings (Tres Reyes or Tatlong Hari in Tagalog), also known as the Feast of the Epiphany. The Feast of the Three Kings was traditionally commemorated on Jan. 6 but is now celebrated on the first Sunday after the New Year. Some children leave their shoes out, so that the Three Kings would leave behind gifts like candy or money inside. Jan. 6 is also known in other countries as Twelfth Night, and the "Twelve Days of Christmas" referred to in the Christmas carol are the twelve days between Christmas Day (December 25) and the coming of the Three Kings (January 6).
The Filipino Christmas would not be complete without the traditional Philippine Christmas symbols and decorations. Christmas lights are strung about in festoons, as the tail of the Star of Bethlehem in Belens, in shapes like stars, Christmas trees, angels, and in a large variety of other ways, even going as far as draping the whole outside of the house in lights. Aside from Western decorations like Santa Claus, Christmas trees, tinsel, etc, the Philippines has its own ways of showing that it is the holidays.
Though not strictly a custom, every Christmas season, Filipino homes and buildings are adorned with beautiful star lanterns, called parol (Span. farol, meaning lantern or lamp-Merriam Webster - English English- Spanish Dictionary). The earliest parols were traditionally made from simple materials like bamboo sticks, Japanese rice paper (known as "papel de Hapon") or crepe paper, and a candle or coconut oil-lamp for illumination; although the present day parol can take many different shapes and forms. The most base form of the lantern is a 5-pointed star with two "tails" at the lower two tips. Other variations are 4, 8, 10 pointed stars with the rarer 6, 16 and so on pointed stars. The parol is also traditionally made of lacquered paper and bamboo, but others are made of cellophane, plastic, rope, capiz shell and a wide variety of materials. Making parols is a folk craft, and most Filipino kids have tried their hand at making a parol at one time or another, maybe as a school project or otherwise. The most basic parol can be easily constructed with just ten bamboo sticks, paper, and glue. These lanterns represent the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Magi, also known as the Three Wise Men or Three Kings (Tatlong Hari in Tagalog). Parols are to Filipinos as Christmas trees are to Westerners- an iconic and beloved symbol of the holiday.
Another traditional Filipino Christmas symbol is the belen -- a creche or tableau representing the Nativity scene. Derived from the Spanish term for the town of Bethlehem, it depicts the infant Jesus Christ in the manger, surrounded by the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, the shepherds, their flock, the Magi and some stable animals and angels. Belens can be seen in homes, churches, schools and even office buildings; the ones on office buildings can be extravagant, using different materials for the figures and using Christmas lights, parols, and painted background scenery. A notable outdoor belen in Metro Manila is the one that used to be at the COD building in Cubao, Quezon City. In 2003, the belen was transferred to the Greenhills Shopping Center in San Juan when the COD building closed down. This belen is a lights and sounds presentation, the story being narrated over speakers set up and most probably using automatons to make the figures move up and down, or turn, etc. Each year, the company owning it changes the theme, with variations such as a fairground story, and Santa Claus' journey. On the other hand, Tarlac, known as the "Belen Capital of the Philippines" holds the annual "Belenismo sa Tarlac". It is a belen making contest which is participated by establishments and residents in Tarlac. Giant versions of the belen with different themes are displayed in front of the establishments and roads of Tarlac for the rest of the Christmas season.
In the Philippines, children in small groups go from house to house singing Christmas carols, which they called pangangaroling. Makeshift instruments include tambourines made with tansans (aluminum bottle caps) strung on a piece of wire. With the traditional chant of "Namamasko po!", these carolers wait expectantly for the homeowners to reward them with coins. Afterward, the carolers thank the generous homeowners by singing "Thank you, thank you, ang babait ninyo (you are so kind), thank you!"
More recently, caroling has become a fund-raising activity. Church choirs or youth groups spend weeks rehearsing Christmas carols then draw up a schedule of visits to wealthy patrons in their homes or even corporate offices (often coinciding with the office Christmas party). These are, in effect, mini Christmas concerts, with excellent performances amply rewarded with an envelope of cash or checks. The choirs then use the funds for goodwill projects. Unlike the traditional children's caroling, the singers do not partake of the earnings, but rather donate their share to the group's projects.