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A Philippine Christmas
By Jasmine C. Sison
Christmas 2005

The Philippines is known for celebrating the longest Christmas season.  You know the season has started when you hear the sad ballad "Pasko na Sinta Ko" playing over the airwaves here in Metro Manila.  As early as October, western Christmas carols are played in malls to lure early shoppers.

                                           

Soon after, streets are lined with bright "parols."  Thankfully, these momentarily provide motorist visual relief as rush hour traffic builds to a standstill, peaking a day or two before Christmas.

Malls and supermarkets are mad houses.  Shoppers stand in line for hours to check out and have gifts wrapped.  Finding a parking slot is a no small feat; while getting a cab is next to impossible!  Perhaps its the countless Kris Kringles and Christmas parties adding to the season's chaos.  Or we just have to look long and hard for appropriate gifts our incredibly shrinking peso can buy.  Or perhaps, many are drifting between sleep and consciousness as they attempt to get up before sunrise for nine straight days to attend dawn masses.

 Simbang Gabi

These nine-day dawn masses, known as Simbang Gabi or Misas de Aguinaldo (Gift Masses) starts on December 16.  Many Filipinos believe they will obtain special graces by attending all dawn masses.

For those wondering, historians trace the Simbang Gabi's origin to Mexico.  Spanish missionaries brought the tradition to the Philippines in the 17th century when masses were held as early as 4 o'clock in the morning to accommodate farmers who needed to tend their fields early.

As they presumably were during the Spanish era, December nights are about as "chilly" as Philippine weather gets.  However, inside packed churches, it's a different story.  Body heat and carbon dioxide drive throngs of people to fan themselves as they fight to stay awake!

 

The aromas of native Christmas delicacies outside tempt churchgoers.  Piping hot bibingka (rice cake), puto bumbong (a purple sticky rice delicacy steamed in wooden tubes), salabat (ginger tea) and thick cocoa are among the traditional breakfast treats for sleep-deprived devotees

                                               

The start of Simbang Gabi also marks the start of Christmas caroling in the Philippines.  Cool nights come with bursts of firecrackers and kids' shrill interpretations of familiar western and local Christmas songs like, "Jingle Bells", "We Wish You a Merry Christmas", and "Pasko Na Naman!"

Noche Buena

After the nine-day dawn masses, the Misa de Gallo is celebrated before midnight of December 24.  Then its off to the Noche Buena (traditional Christmas Feast after the midnight mass) to celebrate with the rest of the family.  This much-awaited family reunion typically finds excited kids playing and opening gifts.  Traditional Noche Buena fare is Queso de Bola (ball of cheese) and Hamon (Christmas Ham), usually served with hot chocolate.

 

The Post Christmas Calm

The streets are normally free of traffic on Christmas day and the few days after as many take extended vacations.  It's the time adults rest their weary bodies and empty wallets!  On the other hand, its time for kids to visit carnivals and malls.  It's also time to pay their favorite ninongs and ninangs (godfathers and godmothers) fruitful visits!   

Oh my, how would one describe Christmas in the Philippines?  Warm, festive, crazy, impractical perhaps?  One may even argue the essence of Christmas is largely lost in all the frenzy.  But that's another story.  Whatever it is, it seems to reflect the Filipino's spiritual yearning and fondness of family, food and all that's western!  To some extent, it also reflects collective hope, resilience and ability to cope even in the most trying times.

From the Philippines, we wish you peace, warmth of family and the feeling of home this Christmas. 

Maligayang Pasko!

 

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Some images from www.seasite.niu.edu/tagalog/cynthia/festivals/philippine_christmas.htm

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