If you hate Christmas and anything that has to do with it, maybe you’d want to skip the Philippines. Filipinos celebrate the longest Christmas season in the whole world. Christmas is ushered in — no, not by the rumors if there’s any or how much is the Christmas bonus — but by the Misa de Gallo or Simbang Gabi, which is from December 16 to 24, with the 25th being the Misa de Aguinaldo, the final Christmas mass. Simbang Gabi literally translates to a “Night Mass,” but it’s being held at dawn, 4:00 a.m. to be exact. There are probably two general groupings for those who would want to complete the 9-day Simbang Gabi, resisting the urge to sleep, made more difficult by the cold nights — the devout Catholics and those who believe a wish is granted if the 9 days are completed. Still, regardless of which group you’re in, you’d probably enjoy the traditional Philippine Christmas delicacies — bibingka, puto bumbong and tsokolate — served, for a fee, of course, around the church area.
While the Christmas season official starts with the Simbang Gabi, preparations for Christmas start as early as the first “ber” month — September. The celebration lasts until the feast of the Three Kings, which is on January 6. Way before December, you’ll see the ubiquitous parol. It’s Spanish counterpart is “farol,” which also means lantern or lamp. It represents the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Tatlong Hari (Magi or Three Wise Men or Three Kings or whatever you may want to call them). The basic form is, of course, a star — with 5 points and two tails at the bottom. The simple parol is created from paper, glue and bamboo sticks. There are more fancy ones, like the parols competing at the Lantern Festival in San Fernando, Pampanga, such as this one:
A large part of the Christmas celebration is the food, which is probably why slimming centers are booked during the first quarter of every year. Even for those on a diet, the Christmas season serves as a convenient excuse to pig out — hamon, lechon, pancit, fried chicken, lumpia, rice, adobo, rice cakes, puto bumbong, ice cream and everything under the sun, except fruit cake. It’s really a wonder why almost nobody seems to like fruit cakes, but almost everybody gets it.
If you think the gorging on food and pigging out ends on December 25 with the noche buena, think again. By the way, “noche” literally means “night” and “buena” means “good,” so the noche buena is a good night’s meal. I’m not really sure about that, though, but I’m sure that the pigging out not ending with the noche buena. The eating spree lasts until “media noche” or the midnight meal on New Year’s Eve, which is December 31 (I’m wondering why New Year’s Eve is not the evening of January 1, but I’m not really complaining). In addition to all the food mentioned above, the media noche table is usually complete with 12 fruits that are round, which is for good luck. Oranges, watermelons, lychees, peaches, grapes, and, yes, apples will do. You’ll notice that prices for these fruits skyrocket before New Year.
Now, how do you chase out evil spirits? Fireworks and firecrackers. Yes, fireworks are all over in the Philippines, on the evening of 24, rising to a climax on New Year’s eve (which, again, is December 31). That’s one great way to end the year with a bang.
There’s really a whole lot more Christmas traditions in the Philippines. You may even have enough time to check out the different top Christmas destinations. There may be many fond memories. With all the sights, sounds, smell, taste and feel of Christmas in the Philippines, there’s really a big chance of losing sight of what Christmas is all about — commemorating the birth of our Saviour.
[Photo courtesy of B E T H, see Simbang Gabi.]