“Christmas in the Philippines is very different”
At IUBH, we have international students from over 110 different countries. For the Advent season, we asked some of them to describe Christmas traditions in their home countries.
I am sitting here in autumnal Berlin and listening to some Christmas carols in an attempt to get inspiration for my article about Christmas traditions in the Philippines. I then suddenly registered the words of a famous Christmas song: “…I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.” I stop and ponder…
As a Filipina who has spent her entire life in a tropical country, I have never seen a white Christmas. I have never seen white sidewalks and snow-covered trees. I have never worn heavy fur clothes, coats or boots. I have never felt the sensation of cold below-freezing temperatures. However, although we have never experienced these things ourselves, we young Filipinos – or “kabataan” as we are called in our language – have always been aware of this image of a magical white Christmas from foreign films and songs, from post cards or Facebook posts from family and friends. This image has decisively shaped the idea of a “perfect Christmas” in the mind of every Filipino.
When I came to Germany, I was so excited about this perfect Christmas. During my first weeks here, I found the Filipino community in Berlin. On Sundays, I go to the Catholic Church and because I am so curious about Christmas, I usually bring up this topic there. All the people I have asked answer me with the famous Filipino line “Iba pa rin ang Pasko sa Pinas” – which means “Christmas in the Philippines is very different” – and allows us Filipinos to indulge in memories of our country’s most anticipated celebrations.
The most elaborate Christmas in the world
According to the CNN article, “The Philippines shows the world how to celebrate Christmas”, Christmas celebrations in the Philippines are the longest and most elaborate in the world. From September 1st to January 9th of the following year, you can hear Christmas carols and see Christmas decorations.
Christmas trees are decorated, whether green or white, small or large. Santa Claus, Rudolf and the famous elves are also, of course, an essential part of creating a perfect atmosphere.
A decorated house always has a Parol and a Belen. Parol is the Spanish expression for illuminating ones house. It represents the star that guided the Three Wise Men to baby Jesus in the manger. A Belen is a pictorial representation of the birth of Jesus with Josef and Maria, the Three Wise Men and the animals in the stable in Bethlehem. You can usually buy these decorations everywhere along the streets or students make them in art class.
During the Christmas season in the Philippines, one should always have small change ready for the carollers who come to every house to sing Christmas carols. They wander through the streets in groups with homemade musical instruments made out of slats, cans, bottles or other material they can use. Carollers can be children or older citizens who like to sing Christmas carols and collect money for charitable purposes.
Misa De Gallo or Simbang Gabi is a series of nine early morning church services from December 16th to the 25th. At 4am in the morning, Catholics go to church in the hope that a wish will come true if they have been to all nine early services.
Christmas specialties: Purple desserts and sweet rice cakes
Many adults, who no longer care about presents, look forward to the Christmas season specialities. Puto bumbong and Bibingka are the most popular. After Simbang Gabi no one would go back to sleep without eating at one of the two. Puto Bumbona is a sweet purple coloured dessert made of sticky rice steamed in bamboo and served with butter and coconut. Bibingka is cake made out of sweet rice with cheese and salty eggs. The scent of these foods spreads through all the streets and it is hard to resist. Other typical Christmas specialties include Morcon, Embutido, Crispy Pata, Paella, Pancit Malabon, Leche Flan, Buko and fruit salad.
Noche Buena starts when the clock strikes midnight on December 25th. This is the moment when we cheerfully wish everyone a “Merry Christmas”, and hug and kiss each other. Then there is a Christmas dinner and we open presents. Children, of course, get the most presents, and finally get to see cousins, aunts, uncles and other relatives they have not seen all year. They also see their godparents again and hope to receive Aguinaldo or cash as a present if they have shown them the pagmamano. This is synonymous with the tradition of kissing the hand of an older person as a sign of appreciation. The younger one bows over the hand presented by the older person.
A perfect Christmas doesn’t need snow
Of course, I will miss getting presents at Christmas. However, with all these Filipino Christmas traditions, as soon as the “-ber” months begin (September to December), I remember that this is the season of belonging and togetherness. It is a time when you feel loved, regardless of whether you are with your family, friends or other people. It is a time when you get warm smiles, big hugs and sincere kisses. It is a time when everything stands still and the whole country celebrates together, regardless of social status, education or profession. For me, that is better than white sidewalks and snow-covered trees or wearing heavy fur clothes, coats and boots. It will always be my perfect Christmas.