The smell of bibingka wafts from the local bakery as churchgoers leave the cathedral at the crack of dawn amidst excited chatter and the voice of Jose Mari Chan crooning in the airwaves. Sound familiar? It should if you live in the Philippines! Come advent season, the festivities are in full swing, and everyone is gearing up for the familiar yet always unique experience of the unique Filipino Christmas Celebration!
Which, by the way, starts in September.
But why does Christmas in the Philippines start in September?
A little too early, don’t you think? Not really. Officially, Christmas celebrations are supposed to begin on December 16, a day known as Simbang Gabi, or Night Mass. However, the reason why the Christmas bug bites the Filipinos when the “ber” months hit is because there are no intervening holidays that come before it. Unlike the United States and other countries that celebrate Halloween, Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and so on, the Philippines only has Christmas to look forward to during the last stretch of the year.
It also helps that the country is 90 percent Christian, so the birth of Jesus is kind of a big deal.
So, now that we know the “why,” how do they celebrate Christmas in the Philippines? Let’s find out more.
Philippines Christmas traditions: 500 years in the making
Many of the traditions in the country come from its colonial heritage. When the Spaniards landed in 1521, they not only named the archipelago after King Philip, but also bought with them an entire fleet of Catholic missionaries. The native Filipinos were surprisingly open to the faith, and it wasn’t long before much of the population began celebrating the holidays according to Spanish customs.
Unlike other nations, the Philippines has largely safeguarded the season’s religious significance and kept the march of commercialization at bay. Attending mass is virtually a requirement for a successful celebration or else it just wouldn’t feel like Christmas. Nine days prior to December 25th, Filipinos get up before the crack of dawn and haul their tired feet and bleary eyes to the nearest church (legend has it that completing all nine masses grants you a wish from the Virgin Mary). On Christmas eve, everyone, whether rich or poor, puts on their best clothes and sits shoulder-to-shoulder in the pews as they attend the Misa de Gallo or Rooster’s Mass, a special mass celebrated at midnight that incorporates lots of festive hymns as well as a yearly reenactment of Jesus’ birth played by volunteers in the community. What follows next is the best part: a gut-busting feast called the Noche Buena (literally “The Good Night”), which features local delicacies such as pancit, queso de bola, adobo, lumpia, tsokolate, and of course, the unofficial national meal, lechon.
Another interesting Filipino Christmas tradition happens on Christmas Day, when it is common for family members to visit each other. This occasion is also unique because senior family members give their blessings to younger relatives. In this custom called Págmamáno, elders offer the back of their hands, placing it on the foreheads of their younger relatives and sometimes even offering money (called Aguinaldo). On this day, older members of each Filipino family are revered.
These Christmas traditions are so ingrained in the culture that finding a family who doesn’t celebrate it in exactly this manner is rare. For customs that were established half a millennium ago, they have truly stood the test of time.
The Filipino Christmas celebration: the best time to come home
Christmas in the Philippines is often the only time of the year where many parents can come home. There aren’t a lot of opportunities in the country, so one parent often leaves his or her family to work abroad from January to November, saving all their vacation days so that they can spend it with their minamahal in the last month of the year. These are the OFWs – Overseas Filipino Workers, who regularly send money to their loved ones from abroad. Thus, Christmas is not just about presents, but the reunification of families that are forced to stay apart due to financial difficulties. No wonder the happiest people during this season are kids!
Sometimes, a loved one may not be able to make the trip, but the Filipinos are remarkably resilient. In the past, international calls allowed voices to be sent through the wire, giving parents a sense of comfort in hearing their children talk even if they can’t see their expectant faces. These were expensive, so they had to be saved for special occasions like Christmas and New Year, but with video conferencing now cheap and accessible, it’s become more common for virtual reunions to keep families connected and heal the rift between them.
Remittances: a labor of sweat, tears, and love
Remittances are a lifeblood of the Philippine economy. There are currently 10 million Filipino expats working abroad, and most of the money that they earn is sent back to their relatives in the Philippines. This amounts to billions of dollars every year, comprising a percentage that may amount to about 10 percent of the country’s GDP.
The dedication that Filipinos have to their families is on full display here. That amount of money can be spent living a comfortable lifestyle overseas, but they always prioritize their kin back at home. A popular saying in the Philippines is “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makararating sa paroroonan” (Those who do not look back to where they came from will never arrive to where they’re going), which is another way of reminding people to appreciate their humble beginnings lest they get carried away by success, and Filipinos do this by their dogged determination to lift their own communities out of poverty. Christmas in the Philippines is a special time for everyone to be reminded of this.
It is, after all, a noble mission and a worthwhile journey – one of which Ria Money Transfer wants to be a part of.
Ready to send money to the Philippines? We’re here for you. Download our Ria Money Transfer App for iOS or Android today and let’s get started!