Christmas has always been a special time in the Philippines. It’s the holiday that Filipinos look forward to the most! Simbang Gabi, Christmas shopping, eating puto bumbong and bibingka, hanging Christmas lights and lanterns, preparing for food and desserts, they’re all part of why the Christmas spirit is so vibrant in the Philippines.
Christmas won’t be Christmas for a Filipino without a few traditions from our culture, which is why wherever we go, whether as OFWs or just holiday vacationers, we always bring these Filipino Christmas traditions with us:
- Noche Buena
Carbonara, lechon, Christmas ham, hotdogs with marshmallows, liempo, pandit —they definitely smell like Filipino Noche Buena. It has always been a tradition to prepare food for Christmas Eve dinner. Preparation starts early in the morning, and even the kids in the house are excited on the morning of the 24th. It’s not a Filipino Christmas without a good Noche Buena. No matter what household—rich, middle class or lower class, they all have the best dishes served on Noche Buena!
In the U.S., the traditional Christmas eve foods are usually ham, soups, pasta, turkey or sausages. Families usually wait for 12 midnight by watching movies, eating and drinking. accompanied by several Filipino Christmas tradition like playing games, having a small Christmas party program, and singing karaoke! To make sure that there are post-dinner desserts that family and friends can munch on, there will always be leche flan, fruit salad, cake, and even mango float! Yum!
Whether you’re at a Christmas party at work, school, or at a family gathering, there will always be a Monito-Monitaincluded in the program (and yes, there’s a program). Most Christmas parties in other countries are the typical house parties where people just eat, drink, go around and basically just party. Filipino Christmas parties always have intermission numbers, parlor games, and the exchange gift portion.
A few weeks prior to the party, people draw lots to find out who’s their monito/monita (or the person he/she has to give a gift to). To make it even more exciting, some parties have a codename system, so you only find out who’ll receive your gift at the party itself. This exchange gift ceremony can be an exciting Christmas tradition especially for the young ones at school who expect their secret Santa to be their crush!
- Christmas lights and parol (lanterns)
In the Philippines, almost every household has a parol or Christmas lantern. Some people go for the DIY decors. Aside from the usual Christmas lights and a Christmas tree, Filipinos are fond of decorating their homes with lanterns and a Belen.
The parol is an ornamental star-shaped Christmas lantern that represents the Bethlehem star that guided the three wise men to the manger where Christ was born. A lot of Filipinos make and sell these star-shaped lanterns for a living. A lot of them would be seen by the side of roads and highways. Christmas lights and trees, however, are usually only available inside malls and department stores.
Today, the parol has been innovated in terms of materials and design. There are cities, towns, and workplaces that hold parol-making contests to encourage creativity among the people. This is also to keep the parol Christmas tradition alive since more people might opt for modern Christmas lights and designs nowadays to match their house design and their contemporary taste.
- Christmas starts in September.
It’s only in the Philippines that Christmas starts in September. Come the first day of September, you’d hear classic Christmas songs playing on the radio, inside malls, restaurants, grocery stores, everywhere! Basically, Christmas time in the Philippines is all of the –ber months (September, October, November, and December). So for four straight months, Jose Mari Chan’s “Christmas in Our Hearts” and Mariah Carey’s“All I Want for Christmas” dominate every playlist!
A lot of people also start hanging their Christmas ornaments as early as September. Countdowns in malls and other establishments (even on television) also start in September. A lot of foreign visitors in the Philippines get startled by how early Christmas season starts in the Philippines. Surely, there’s still the Halloween season and other occasions and observances to celebrate in September and October, but Filipino tradition believes otherwise. If Christmas is as fun and colorful as it is in the Philippines, then it’s surely understandable why Filipinos are extremely excited about it!
- Giving away agu
It’s also a Filipino Christmas tradition for ninangs and ninongs (godparents) to give Christmas money to their inaanaks (godchildren), especially the young ones. These would usually be given in red ampaw (red Chinese envelope). On Christmas day, children will wear their best and newest set of clothes, making sure they look adorable (and irresistible!) when they visit their godparents. They line up to receive their red envelope and wait for their turn to mano. Mano is an old tradition where the kid’s forehead would touch the back of the elder’s hand as a sign of respect.
The kids are usually asked by their parents to keep and save the Christmas money instead of spending it immediately. It’s no wonder kids are always happy on Christmas day!
These are just a few of the things that complete the Filipino Christmas experience. There are several more such as the simbang gabi, house-to-house caroling, panunuluyan, putting up homemade Christmas trees and more!
But regardless of where a Filipino spends Christmas time, with these traditions, there will always be a feeling of home. Christmas has always been the most-awaited and most special holiday of the year, where families get together to celebrate and share stories and gifts with each other. Christmas has always been about coming home to find peace, joy, and love with family and friends. And tradition will always be a big part of that because it’s not home if it’s not what you’ve known and loved over the years.
As Marjorie Holmes once said, “At Christmas, all roads lead home.