Celebrating Filipino


Christmas traditions

By Joey G. Alarilla

THE PHILIPPINES has earned the distinction of celebrating the world's longest Christmas season.

Traditionally, Christmas Day in the Philippines is ushered in by the nine-day dawn masses that start on Dec. 16. Known as the Misas de Aguinaldo (Gift Masses) in the traditional Spanish, these masses are more popularly known in Filipino as the simbang gabi. The simbang gabi is the most important Filipino Christmas tradition.

The nine dawn masses are also considered as a novena by the Catholic faithful. This refers to the Roman Catholic practice of performing nine days of private or public devotion to obtain special graces.

In some parishes, the simbang gabi used to begin as early as four in the morning. Going to mass this early for nine consecutive days is meant to show the churchgoer's devotion to his faith and heighten anticipation for the Nativity of the Lord. In traditional Filipino belief, however, completing the novena is also supposed to mean that God would grant the devotee's special wish or favor.

After hearing mass, Filipino families partake of traditional Philippine Christmas delicacies, either during breakfast at home or outside the church. Vendors offer a wealth of native delicacies, including bibingka (rice cake), puto bumbong (a purple sticky rice delicacy which is steamed in wooden tubes), salabat (ginger tea) and thick cocoa.

The Misas de Aguinaldo are not to be confused with the Misa de Gallo, which literally means "Mass of the Cock" or "Mass of the Rooster" in Spanish. This refers to crowing of the rooster which welcomes the dawn. The Misa de Gallo is the pre-Christmas mass celebrated on Dec. 24, ending the nine-day simbang gabi.

For Filipinos, Christmas Eve on Dec. 24 is the much-anticipated noche buena -- the traditional Christmas feast after the midnight mass. Family members dine together on traditional noche Buena fare, which includes the queso de bola (literally "ball of cheese;" edam cheese) and hamon (Christmas ham).

In different provinces throughout the Philippines, Catholic devotees also reenact the journey of Joseph and the pregnant Blessed Virgin Mary, in search of lodging for the soon-to-be born Jesus Christ. This is the traditional panunuluyan, also called pananawagan and pananapatan.

This street pageant is performed after dark on Christmas Eve, with the actors portraying Joseph and Mary going to pre-designated houses. They chant traditional songs which are meant to wake up the owner of the house as they ask for lodging, but are turned away. Finally, Joseph and Mary make their way to the parish church. Here, a simulated manger has been erected. The birth of Jesus Christ is celebrated at midnight with the Misa de Gallo, together with hallelujahs and Christmas carols.

The Filipino Christmas would not be complete without the traditional Philippine Christmas symbols and decorations. These include the parol or Christmas lantern symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Magi, also known as the Three Wise Men or Three Kings. The parol is traditionally made of lacquered paper and bamboo, but others are made of plastic, rope, capiz shell and a wide variety of materials.

Another traditional Filipino Christmas symbol is the belen -- a creche or tableau representing the Nativity scene. It depicts the infant Jesus Christ in the manger, surrounded by his parents, shepherds, their flock and the Magi.

In the Philippines, children also celebrate Christmas with the traditional Christmas caroling -- going from house to house singing Christmas carols. Makeshift instruments include tambourines made with tansan (bottle caps). With the traditional chant of "Namamasko po!" these carolers wait expectantly for the owner of the house to reward them with coins. After being rewarded, the carolers thank the owner by singing "Thank you, thank you, ang babait ninyo, thank you."

The Philippines also commemorates Niņos Inocentes on Dec. 28. This is also commemorated as Holy Innocents Day or Childermas in other countries. The innocents referred to are the children who were massacred by order of Herod, who was seeking the death of the newborn Messiah. In the Philippines, Dec. 28 is the equivalent of April 1 or April Fool's Day.

On New Year's Eve, Filipino families gather for the media noche or midnight meal – a feast that is also supposed to symbolize their hopes for a prosperous New Year. In spite of the yearly ban on firecrackers, many Filipinos in the Philippines still see these as the traditional means to greet the New Year. The loud noises and sounds of merrymaking are not only meant to celebrate the coming of the New Year but are also supposed to drive away bad spirits. Safer methods of merrymaking include banging on pots and pans and blowing on horns. Folk beliefs also include encouraging children to jump at the stroke of midnight so that they would grow up tall, displaying circular fruit and wearing clothes with dots and other circular designs to symbolize money, and opening windows and doors during the first day of the New Year to bring in good luck.

Christmas officially ends on the Feast of the Three Kings (Tres Reyes), also known as the Feast of the Epiphany. The Feast of the Three Kings was traditionally commemorated on Jan. 6 but is now celebrated on the first Sunday after the New Year. Jan. 6 is also known in other countries as Twelfth Night, and the "Twelve Days of Christmas" referred to in the Christmas carol are the twelve days between Christmas Day (Dec. 25) and the coming of the Three Kings (Jan. 6).