A guest post by Manila Resto Owner, Marlo Ambas
Being a first-generation Filipino American son whose parents immigrated from the Philippines in the early 1980s, I was blessed with the best of both worlds. If you think back to the most magical time of your youth, I bet for a lot of you Christmas comes to mind. Now imagine a Christmas that lasts five months and is full of traditions, festive food and family. That Filipino tradition, along with what every typical American kid experiences at Christmastime, is what I experienced growing up.
A History of Christmas in the Philippines
The Philippines have such deep Catholic influences from the Spanish occupation during 1521 to 1898 that, to this day, the Philippines hold the longest celebration of the Christmas season. People begin greeting each other with Merry Christmas on September 1! The months of September, October, November and December are full of Christmas celebrations. And after the church and feast day traditions, the celebrations can continue until the end of January! I can still remember being on the sandy, white beaches of Boracay in January — it was there that I watched a drumming procession of people singing while carrying a statue of the Santo Niño (the Holy Child). Christmas on the beach? Yes, please! If you visit the Philippines, be sure to stay in Boracay. Its infrastructure was recently completely redone to support the community and tourists — it’s stunning!
Filipino Christmas Traditions and Decorations
Beginning on September 1, Christmas decorations start going up in the Philippines and Christmas music is already playing. By the time Christmas Day arrives, you’ll see incredible displays throughout towns, city centers, malls, landmarks and parks across the country.
One of my favorite Christmas traditions in the Philippines is Noche Buena, or night of Christmas Eve. My family would attend literal midnight mass, and even though I was seated next to my cousins, we were all on our best behavior to ensure that we would get our gifts when we got home. When we returned home, a big feast would be waiting for us, and the evening would be filled with lots of singing, eating and celebrating with our family and friends. Songs in Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, along with a few English songs would be mixed in. The centerpiece of the feast was a Filipino mainstay, lechon, or a whole pig roast. It wouldn’t be a Filipino celebration if there wasn’t a large pig at the center of it!
With so many Filipinos living and working overseas, one tradition Filipino families do throughout the year, especially during Christmastime, is sending balikbayan boxes to the Philippines. I remember packing lots of items into these heavy cardboard boxes — gifts of clothing, kitchen items, toys and chocolates — and lugging them in and out of our van and unloading them when we arrived in Manila. Imagine all these gifts from your loved ones coming in one giant box — opening it would feel like Christmas morning! Our balikbayan boxes would contain gifts for my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, as well as for the less fortunate. Many parts of the Philippines are impoverished, but the Christmas season is about giving, and that includes everyone.
One Christmas decoration that is unique to the Philippines is the parol. A parol is a large, star-shaped decoration made from the beautiful capíz shells, which houses flashing lights. If you happen to see one hanging in a window here in the states, chances are it came from the Philippines. Other traditional decorations include the nativity scene. You can find these in markets across the Philippines. Nowadays, you can easily find Christmas trees, evergreen decorations and Santa alongside the parols and nativity scenes.
I haven’t spent a Christmas in the Philippines in years, but it is an experience I hope to share with my own children soon. I incorporate my experiences into theirs by hanging our parols in the front window of our Filipino restaurant (aptly named Manila), and by taking our children to an annual Filipino mass led by local Filipino priests. We celebrate Noche Buena by attending 5 p.m. “midnight mass” and then we go to my parents’ home for the feast, including that whole-roasted lechon. We still ship balikbayan boxes to the Philippines that arrive in time for Christmas. Then, on Christmas morning, my children arrange the nativity scene. Not everyone gets to experience an American Christmas alongside a Filipino Christmas, but I urge you to put the Philippines on your bucket list for an upcoming holiday season! January is the most temperate season to enjoy the Philippines, after all. Christmas in the Philippines is unlike anywhere else in the world. Merry Christmas, or, as we say in the Philippines, Maligayang Pasko!