Filipino Christmas Traditions (& Food) I Miss

As I was wondering of what topic to write about while listening to my Christmas feels playlist tonight, a classic OPM (Original Pilipino or Pinoy Music) song broke into my head and made me feel all nostalgic over Christmas festivities and celebrating it with my family in the Philippines. So now I know exactly what I’d like to share with you – this is for anyone who is traveling to the Philippines this season and curious to know about why this event of the year is the most important and special for most Pinoys at least and how you can best experience a meaningful and one-of-a-kind tropical Christmas such as ours.

Simbang Gabi

simbang gabi

If you don’t already know yet, around 80% of the Philippines’ population is devout Roman Catholics. Simbang Gabi or Misa de Gallo in Spanish, which literally means rooster mass, is a 9-day novena mass commencing from the 16th of December up to Christmas eve – a long esteemed tradition being practiced until today for over 600 years. Beautifully-decorated churches usually hold masses as early as 4 in the morning or an anticipated mass varying between 8 and 9 in the evening to give the devotees a chance to attend the masses after work or the ones who can’t commit to waking up every 4am – although that’s definitely part of the sacrifice you make. It has been believed that if you complete all the masses throughout these 9 consecutive days, whatever you fervently pray for will be granted. Also, at every Simbang Gabi, there will be vendors outside of the church selling Filipino delicacies traditionally cooked and eaten during the Christmas season.

Parol

These are glorious handcrafted Christmas lanterns that can be made out of art paper, colored foil or plastic or capiz shells. As early as September, parols will start appearing along the streets, in front of homes, surrounding shopping malls, parks and other public spaces. Parol to us is like Christmas trees to Western culture. This symbolizes the star of Bethlehem, which guided the three kings to the manger. Although it has evolved from having a simple star-shaped pattern to very intricate kaleidoscopic versions with hypnotizing light mechanism through the years, it has always remained the most recognizable symbol of Filipinos’ faith and hope. We even have a giant lantern festival happening a week before Christmas every year in Pampanga City http://www.giantlantern.ph/, where many and the most beautiful parols are produced, holds a lantern competition showcasing breathtaking parol craftsmanship.

Longest Christmas celebrations

At least in my opinion, it is – the festivities seem to go on forever. Christmas parties before December, why not? You hardly have any “me time” during this month because you’ll have way too many visitors, people to shop for and parties to attend. That’s why a lot of my Filipino friends overseas do not come home for Christmas every year (even if they are dying to) because it can get really expensive – you can probably imagine why. As mentioned before, Christmas spirit gets fired up as early as September and burns until after the Epiphany or Three Kings’ day on the 6th of January. I’ve never been anywhere that celebrates Christmas for an extended period of time besides the Philippines. So the first week of January is actually the only time people start putting away their Christmas decors.

Christmas carols

We have a bunch of kids doing rounds in the whole village everyday to sing Christmas carols outside of your house in hopes of getting a few coins or treats. You can even request a particular song you like and if they know it, they will be happy to sing it for you with their tambourines, marakas and drums. Yes, it’s like trick or treating in Halloween, but they won’t play tricks on you if you don’t give them anything – they will instead belt out a special song just for cheapskates. So give them something! Oh and adults also do this, but oftentimes, they will give you an envelope before they come to visit you with a letter of intent. That way you’ll be more prepared for them.

Aguinaldo

This Spanish term, which the Filipinos have adopted, means a Christmas bonus or stapled crisp peso bills. Normally, children will be visiting their immediate family, relatives and godparents and receiving “aguinaldos” on Christmas day or some days later. It’s like the red packet or ang pao in Chinese tradition given during special occasions. But in the Philippines, we only expect it from the elderly during Christmas time and in my experience, if you’re already older than 16, you don’t get anything anymore! A time will come that you will eventually stop being considered as a kid consequently cutting your Christmas funds cashflow.

Noche Buena

On Christmas eve, we get super excited about two things: the gift giving part and sharing a dinner feast together with typical Filipino Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) dishes on the table. More than the delicious grub on the table, it’s the togetherness that always makes it complete.

Now let’s talk a bit about some typical Filipino Christmas food, shall we?

15644951_155926608221360_1349869045_nBibingka and puto bumbong – this will normally be available during the Simbang Gabi/Dawn Mass. Bibingka is a type of rice cake topped with cheese, margarine and salted egg steamed with banana lining while puto bumbong is a purple glutinous rice recipe with a dash of sugar, salt, butter and heaps of shredded coconut. YUM!

Meats – pineapple glazed ham, goat meat stew (kaldereta), crispy pata (pig’s thigh), roasted pig (lechon) – yes, we love pork! Stay away from these if you need to watch your cholesterol levels. You know what they say, the bad stuff always tastes the best. There are always healthier options or try it in small portions – if you got your self-control down pat.

Pancit malabon or spaghetti – other than rice, you can pick either of these for your carbo fix. Pancit malabon is a savory rice noodles loaded with seafood, boiled eggs and veggies. Our Filipino-style spaghetti recipe is sweet with hotdog slices and carrots – you will hardly taste the “sourness” of the tomato paste! I’m not sure how the Italians will react to it, but we like it that way.

Fruit cake or bread – everyone knows what this is, right? We like giving these away because it lasts for a while and you can get these in supermarkets in gift-ready shiny colored boxes – held together with a cute ribbon!

Macaroni or fruit salad – If you’re making the fruit salad, you should never forget the shredded young coconut meat!

Keso de bola – this is our local version of Edam cheese from the Netherlands. You will normally pair it with the sweet ham and a slice of bread! Or just with wine.

lechon

Uhmm, okay enough of that for now. I hate to work up an appetite for all of it and not have any within reach! And I’m starting to miss everyone back home sorely…again!

With everything that is unique about Christmas in the Philippines, it’s really something that grows on you and miss everytime you are away. Just as someone who has been celebrating Christmas in the cold all their life and doing their own Christmas traditions will find it hard to adapt to Christmas celebrations elsewhere – somehow there’s always something missing, right? But it’s always good to experience Christmas in other places and be exposed to other traditions – and appreciate your own even more.

7 comments

I have a friend who recently told me about sfood you eat during the Christams Eve. Sounds really interesting, especially compared to Polish traditions. Here we don’t eat meat during the Christmas dinner, only non-meat dishes and fish 🙂 thank you for sharing!

I miss the Philippines. Although I am from a different religion, the holiday season back home does not compare anywhere else. Will plan a trip soon.

I have a few friends from the Philippines, and they’ve been saying to me how much they enjoy Christmas recently. Reading this I can see why! I’m all for celebrating from November all the way through 6th January 🙂 And the Parols sure do sound like a fun addition to any Christmas celebration.

I have been reading quite a lot about different ways Christmas is celebrated across world. It’s amazing to know how differently it is celebrated in various societies. The Filipino Christmas seems to be quite interesting. Thanks for sharing insights about the traditions from Philippines.

The Parols must be beautiful! I love that about Christma most: the lights, candles… It is also so nice to learn how others celebrate. It is such an important part of culture. Thanks for sharing

These are very interesting traditions that the Philippines have. And I am sure the same goes with some other countries. These traditions make the celebrations like Christmas more meaningful. It’s fun to learn about these, what a fun read!

I can imagine how you must be missing this grand celebrations. Very informative in terms of the kinds of celebrations done in Philippines. I hope to visit your beautiful country some day!

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