On my way to passport control earlier, I was taking photos of the Christmas decors along the corridors. Unknown to me, our Kuwait Airlines flight captain was watching me from my back as I took the photos and remarked, “Isn’t it too early?” Indeed it was, it’s only November. But I told him that in the Philippines, the Christmas Season starts on the first day of September and could last until February. We are known for having the world’s longest Christmas celebration. And so, welcome to the Christmas capital of the world.
Undoubtedly, the Philippines has the world’s longest Christmas celebration. The Christmas Season starts with the ~ber months (months ending with ~ber) and lasts until the Feast of the Epiphany (more popularly known as the Feast of the Three Kings) on January 6. The Liturgical Calendar, however, would extend the celebration until February 2 with the Feast of Our Lady of the Candles, or the Feast of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of the Baby Jesus at the Temple.
That’s at least 128 days of Christmas. Six months and a day at most. Imagine how at a certain point, shopping malls are simultaneously decorated with both Christmas and Halloween ornaments.
The moment the clock ticks midnight on September 1, public places, commercial establishments, and every street corner start showing hints of Christmas decorations. Christmas songs start dominating the airwaves from shopping malls, radio stations, and even the public transports were in tune with the holiday merriment.
In the modern-day Philippines, this lengthy Christmas season is officially welcomed by playing two of the most popular Christmas songs that have well captured the Christmas spirit in the country. “Christmas in Our Hearts“ by Jose Mari Chan and “All I Want for Christmas is You“ by Mariah Carey were the unofficial Christmas anthems in the country and should the Vatican decide to canonize these two artists into saints, they will be the Patron Saints for Christmas Shopping.
Here are some of the prominent events and celebrations during this lengthy Christmas Season in the Philippines.
Tiangge and Pop-Up Christmas Bazaars
Aside from the numerous Christmas lantern and Christmas decors suddenly appearing everywhere, the proliferation of pop-up bazaars and tiangge, a Filipino term for flea markets, is one of the many tangible signs that Christmas season has arrived. Aside from the usual shopping centers being expanded into massive Christmas shopping arcades, parking lots and other vacant spaces in commercial or residential areas will be converted into flea markets. Even school and church grounds won’t be left behind.
For Christmas is the perfect excuse for splurging.
December will never have enough of Christmas parties in the Philippines. As most of the employees will not be contented with their company-wide parties, most individual departments will hold their own part from that company-sponsored one hold just a week or so ago. And if that still won’t be enough, other smaller sections down to the smallest peer groups will organize their own.
In the first company that I worked in, we have the company Christmas party held usually in the first week of December. The following week, our Quality Assurance department will have our Christmas dinner one weekend outside the company. And then the week closest to Christmas, our QC Audit group will stay overnight at one pre-booked private pool somewhere in the south. And sometime in December, our group and some of the other groups will join forces for another Christmas dinner.
We had at least four Christmas parties for the company alone. And some of our classmates from high school and colleges would organize another Christmas get-together.
Christmas is the perfect excuse to eat devour all those calories you have been passionately avoiding for the rest of the year.
Exchange Gifts and Monito-Monita
While Christmas exchange gift is the grandfather of all Christmas gift giving, it has its smaller kids and they are many.
This is a challenge to one’s creativity and it’s done in groups. Each participant will have his or her name on a piece of paper while will be sealed and contained in a bowl or any container. Everyone will pick a piece from the container and whoever name will be picked will be his or her Monito (in case the receiver is a boy) or Monita (in case of a girl). The names of the Monitos and Monitas shall be kept a secret until the revelation day. A theme will be assigned each day (something sweet, something squishy) and the gift-giving will continue for a week or more, and based on the current theme, one shall prepare a gift for his or her Monito or Monita. A minimum amount will also be set to be fair for everyone, but one could buy something more expensive but shall never demand more than the agreed amount in return.
On revelation day, usually during the Christmas party, the names will be revealed and a more expensive gift (minimum amount is also usually decided by all the participants) will be given.
Christmas Bonus and 13th Month Pay
While Christmas bonus is compulsory and a dependent on the company’s discretion, year-end bonus is mandated by the Presidential Decree No. 851, s. 1975 requiring all employers to pay their employees an additional month’s pay on or before December 24 of each year.
So pay up, dear boss!
To the joy of every employee, employers would usually release the 13th-month pay late in November or early in December. This allows for more time for Christmas gift shopping. Most of the time, the amount received would be completely depleted as soon as just a few days upon receipt.
Simbang Gabi (Dawn Masses)
Not to be confused with the Christmas Eve mass, Simbang Gabi is a series of nine dawn masses starting from December 16 and ends on the 24th. These masses are usually held from 3:00 AM to 5:00 AM, though recently, Catholic churches are now rendering anticipated masses, usually from 8:00 PM to 10:00 PM the night before, to accommodate those who still had to report for work during these days.
As the dawn masses were done in a series of nines, it is in practice a form of the novena, a form of devotional prayer among Catholics. And as such, it is a popular belief that a person who completed the nine masses will have his or her petitions granted.
When I was a grade four transfer student from the province to the capital, I was always behind my classmates in every subject so after completing the Simbang Gabi that year, I prayed to have a better grasp of our lessons. The following year, I started excelling in class.
Coincidence? It’s your call completely.
As these masses are celebrated at the break of dawn, churchgoers will be scurrying for food, which is an integral part of the Filipino Christmas tradition. Two staple foods served at the makeshift stores in front of the churches are bibingka and puto bumbong. Bibingka is a rounded rice cake usually topped with an assortment of cheese, salted, and freshly grated mature coconut meat. Puto bumbong, on the other hand, is made from violet-colored glutinuous rice steamed in bamboo molds.
Karoling (Christmas Caroling)
Karoling starts at the same day as Simbang Gabi. As soon as it starts to get dark on the 16th, the neighborhood kids would form groups and start singing Christmas carols in front of each house. House owners have the freedom to give as little (a peso) or as big (a hundred) to the kids, or holler “Patawad!” (spare us). As this happens from the 16th to the 24th, some would ask the kids to just return on the Christmas Eve. And if say so, you better prepare as the kids are not so keen to forget promises. Be better prepare a bigger amount too.
Some of the kids would be a little tricky when doing their rounds of the houses (and I’m equally guilty). In some cases, a group of six or more would split into smaller groups of three and do their caroling alternatively. We shall call that Kids’ Economy 101. And in cases where a particular household would give more than the others, the news will spread among the rest of the carolers.
The musical instruments the kids use range from store-bought to home-made tambourines made from flattened bottle crowns and drums made from deflated balloons and milk cans.
Niños Inocentes is celebrated on the December 28 in commemoration of all the innocent male infants and boys under the age of two who were killed at the order of King Herod following the visit of the Magi in search of the newborn Jesus Christ.
In the Philippines, Niños Inocentes is the rough equivalent of April Fools. However, instead of cracking pranks, it was said that people could be forgetful so be particularly careful not to let money on this day as the borrower will completely forget about it the next day.
Christmas Eve Dinner
The most-awaited part of the Christmas festivities, the Christmas Eve dinner is when everyone, wherever they are in the world, go back home to share a sumptuous dinner with the entire family or clan at the stroke of midnight on December 25th. This also explains the sudden influx of Filipinos at the arrivals area of the Philippine International Airport, everyone is coming home for Christmas.
Some of the most popular dishes served during Christmas Eve includes a whole grilled chicken, embutido (the Filipino meat loaf) or morcon (stuffed meat roll), and rellenong bangus (stuffed fish). We tend to stuff our food a lot. For the beer drinkers, there will be grilled pork chops and crispy pata, deep fried pork knuckles.
For dessert, there’s the ever-present combination of leche flan and, either buco pandan, buco salad, fruit salad, or all of them.
Christmas Eve dinner is usually filled with extravagance so the members of the family would have to reheat and eat the same dishes over and over for days or until the refrigerator is empty.