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 Christmas in the PI!
Which, by the way, starts in September.
A little too early, don’t you think?
Not really. 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.
A tradition 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.
These 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, it has surprisingly held up to the ravages of change.
The best time for mom and dad to come home
One of the saddest facts about Christmas in the Philippines is that it is the only time in the year where mom and dad 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. Christmas is not just about presents, but the reunification of broken 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 heal the rift between families.
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 are sent back to their relatives in the Philippines. This amounts to a staggering 32 billion dollars every year, comprising 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.
It is a noble mission and a worthwhile journey that Ria wants to be a part of.