Christmas in the Philippines is beautiful and festive because it centers more on their religious meanings. It focuses on Jesus’ Nativity, which is the true essence of Christmas.
While Christmas in the Philippines has slowly modernized, with its commercialized aspect in the play, holiday traditions remain strong and proud. For this reason, the Philippines is known for having the best Christmas celebrations in the world.
Whether you’re in the Philippines to celebrate Christmas with your Filipino online date or are planning to go to the country to spend the holidays there, this article is for you. Discover the Filipino Christmas traditions and find out why celebrating your holidays will be more fun in the Philippines.
10 Reasons Why Christmas is More Fun in the Philippines
1. Christmas starts in September
In many parts of the world, they celebrate Christmas on December 25. For Christian countries, they start putting up Christmas decorations a couple of weeks before that.
But in the Philippines, Filipinos start to make merry once the months ending in ‘ber’ roll around—September, October, November, December. Filipinos call it the ‘Ber Months.’
Every year, Filipinos mark September 1 as the beginning of the countdown to Christmas. This countdown is one of the most meaningful traditions that make the world’s earliest and longest stretch of the Christmas season. It’s also the reason why the Philippines is known to have the most joyful Christmas celebrations.
Local TV stations in the Philippines would start the countdown on September 16 as it’s exactly 100 days away from Christmas. Some Filipinos argue that Christmas launches in September due to capitalist marketing stunts, so companies could sell their products earlier. However, the elders in Pampanga—the Christmas Capital of the Philippines—assured that there are much deeper indigenous roots to it.
Christmas in the Philippines begins in September as it originally marked the coming of Amian (North Wind). The month is traditionally the end of the typhoon season, thus the perfect time to rebuild torn-down houses due to storms. Thus, a festive season of rebirth and rebuilding.
The arrival of Amian also signals the coming of the sacred bird, Tarat or Pakis-kis (brown shrike or the Philippine shrike). They are migratory birds found mainly in Asian countries.
In the past, the Tarat came and ate up all the locusts and pests plaguing the fields. By doing that, they save the October rice harvest for the rest of the year, saving the Filipino elders from starvation. It is during these times as well that many local traditional Christmas delicacies are grown and harvested like Pirurutong (Red Sticky Upland Rice), Lakatan (Glutinous Rice), and Ube (Purple Yam).
Filipinos today associate many of their current celebrations with Christianity. However, Kapampángan elders traced them way back from the pre-colonial past.
Strangely enough, though, the pre-colonial Filipino culture accords with the Christian practices. One example is the arrival of the bird, Tarat, which coincides with the Catholic feast of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino.
Despite the traditional reasons, Filipinos love to celebrate anything. They try to celebrate life whenever they can—reflected with the hundred different fiestas and festivals celebrated in the country.
2. Jose Mari Chan fever
Once September comes rolling around, Jose Mari Chan’s popular jingle, ‘Christmas in our Hearts,’ automatically hits playlists at households and local establishments.
Jose Mari Chan is a famous Filipino singer and songwriter well known nowadays for his Christmas songs. He is nearly synonymous with Christmas and is most beloved by the Filipino people. There are also memes passed around social media when September comes creeping in.
Through the locals’ adoration of Jose Mari Chan, they gave him the moniker the ‘Father of Philippine Christmas Music.’ But he humbly declined it as he thought there were other singers with more famous holiday jingles worthy of the epithet.
3. Belen and Parol
Christmas in the Philippines will not be complete without a Belén and Parol.
A Belén (Spanish for Bethlehem) is a tableau representing the scene of Jesus Christ’s Nativity. It portrays the baby Jesus in the manger, surrounded by the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, their flocks, the shepherds, the Three Wise Men. There are also some angels and the Star of Bethlehem on top.
Meanwhile, a Parol (from the Spanish farol, meaning lantern or lamp) is a colorful star-shaped Filipino ornamental lantern displayed during Christmas. These lanterns represent the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Three Kings to the manger. These were also believed to light the way of patrons when going to the church in the early morning.
The earliest parols used simple materials like bamboo and crêpe paper or papél de Japón (Washi or Japanese paper). Today, parols can be of any material, with capiz shells (Windowpane oyster) or glass as the best option for commercial items.
Beléns and parols are everywhere once September starts rolling in. They are in shopping malls, private companies, schools, and Filipino households. They look perfect, helping bring out the Christmas spirit, especially when they are decorated with charming Christmas lights.
On days leading to Christmas, public and private offices, schools, or cliques hold a party, and most of the time, a Monito-Monita is involved.
The mechanics are easy. You have to send your ‘monito’ or ‘monita’ a gift anonymously every day or week. The amount and frequency of your gift rely on the agreement set within the group. There also have to be code names to keep the mystery and fun going. The secret names could be exciting for those who have crushes among the group, too!
There are also other exchange gifts drawn weeks ahead of the party. These are typically for busy adults who don’t have the time to meet up and exchange gifts often.
At the party proper, the group has to sing the Monito Song gift-giver before describing the receiver to the gang. This exciting gift exchange is somewhat like the Western version of Secret Santa—but way wackier!
5. Simbang Gabi or Misa de Gallo
Christmas in the Philippines is special because Filipinos prepare for the coming of Jesus by attending nine dawn masses or Simbang Gabi. The Simbang Gabi (or Misa de Gallo) are held daily starting December 16 to 24. The time depends on the parish church but typically occurs from as early as 03:00 a.m. to 05:00 a.m. local time.
While many Catholics in the Philippines religiously attend all nine masses in anticipation of Christ’s birth, others do it for different reasons. Folk belief holds that God will endow anyone with their deepest wishes if they complete all nine masses. Young Filipino lovers also attend the dawn mass as a part of their date.
Additionally, parish priests began celebrating the Simbang Gabi at the crack of dawn—instead of in the evening—during the Spanish era. It was a compromise for Filipino farmers, who had to work before daylight to avoid the noonday heat out in the fields.
After hearing the Simbang Gabi, Catholic families buy kakanins for breakfast outside the church—and eat it outside or take it home. Kakanins, or roughly translated as dainties or sweetmeats, are local delicacies. These tasty kakanins are so famous as they are served hot, filling the stomachs of hungry churchgoers.
Street vendors offer many native delicacies, including the iconic puto bumbóng, bibingka, suman, and other rice pastries cooked on the spot. Latík and yema (sweet custard confectionery) are sweets sold to children, while biscuits like lengua de gato (butter cookies), barquillos (crispy rolled wafer pastry), uraró (arrowroot), and otap (ladyfingers) are also available. Many soup dishes are also available such as arróz caldo (rice and chicken porridge) and papaitan (goat bile stew from the Ilocos region).
Meanwhile, kapeng barako, tsokolate (Spanish-style hot chocolate), and salabat are the main drinks served in many church premises during dawn mass.
The rice-based delicacies were traditionally served to fill the stomachs of local farmers since rice is cheap and a primary staple in the country. The traditional pastries are also loaded with carbohydrates needed by colonial Filipinos for the work they had to do in the rice paddies and sugar mills.
In the Philippines, a group of any age goes from house to house singing Christmas carols, which they call pangangaroling. Makeshift instruments include drums and tambourines made of plastic with tansans (aluminum bottle caps). Some string their tansans on a piece of wire, while others nail their tansans in a rectangular-sized wood.
When all the creative and recycled instruments are ready, carolers sing Filipino Christmas jingles. Some groups bring along a band for more chances of getting bigger money, but others also do a song and dance to impress homeowners even more.
After singing a song, they do a traditional chant of ‘Namamasko po!’ (roughly translated as ‘Wishing you a Merry Christmas’). They then wait expectantly for the homeowners to give them any token of appreciation.
When a homeowner comes out and gives the carolers something, they finish the whole ritual by chanting “Thank you, thank you, ang babait ninyo (you are so kind), thank you!” Funny enough, Filipinos also have a hilarious way of pissing cheap homeowners. When after some time and no one comes out, or worse turns off all their lights, children would sing loudly, “Thank you, thank you, ang babarat ninyo (you are stingy), thank you!”
8. Noche Buena and Aguinaldo
One of the best things about Christmas in the Philippines is their Noche Buena.
On Christmas Day, after attending the (usually) 10 p.m. Misa de Gallo or Christmas Mass, Filipino families stay up late for the night-long Noche Buena. The family table is often full of delicious Filipino cuisines by then. Food like lumpia (spring roll), pancit (noodle dish), lechon (roasted pig), or puto (steamed rice cake) is served in the hapag (table).
But the holiday staples that are almost always present every Christmas Eve dinner are the hamon (Yule ham) and queso de bola (Edam cheese)! After the feast, people go outside to watch the fireworks display. Others even host fun midnight parties.
The next morning, Filipino families would go visit their extended family to pay respect to senior relatives. This practice of giving respect is shown through the ‘Págmamáno’—from the Spanish mano meaning hand. The young ones take the back of an elder’s back and press them against their foreheads while politely greeting, ‘Máno, pô (roughly translates ‘[Your] hand, please’).’
Godchildren also visit their ninongs and ninangs (godparents) to ask for their aguinaldo (Spanish for bonus). Children may also receive crisp bills for their aguinaldo. Its prevalent use may have stemmed from the Filipino workers during the Spanish regime, receiving extra pay from their employers during Christmas.
In the Philippines, godparents are socially obligated to give their godchildren large amounts of gifts compared to their own nephews or nieces. Nonetheless, a hearty lunch may follow social greetings. Most Filipino families will also take out their leftovers and repurpose the dishes.
Another great thing about Christmas in the Philippines is that it’s the season for the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), at which time they release a lineup of great movies. These typically run from December 25 through New Year’s Day.
On Christmas Day, movie theaters show films pre-approved by the MMFF board. The best part? Cinemas nationwide only feature Filipino films to celebrate locally made movies.
One of the festival highlights is the float parade at the opening. The floats typically represent a movie entry with their respective stars onboard. There will also be the Best Float award—given on the awards night—along with the major acting recognitions.
10. Christmas ends in January or on February 2
The best thing about Christmas in the Philippines? It lasts longer as well!
Technically, Christmas in the Philippines ends on January 6, the Epiphany. However, traditionally, Candelaria (Candlemas), celebrated forty days after Christmas, is the official end of the holidays. Also known as the ‘Feast of the Purification of the Virgin (or Mary)’ or ‘Presentation of Jesus at the Temple,’ Candlemas is a memorable time for devout Catholics.
Candlemas is special as it was when Mary and Joseph took the child Jesus to the Jewish Temple—in Jerusalem—to give thanks to God for giving them a son. This is otherwise known as the commemoration of the presentation of Jesus at the Temple.
Additionally, Candlemas came from ‘Candle Mass.’ That is because candles that will be used throughout the liturgical year are blessed during these times. The religious holiday also denotes the end of the liturgical seasons of Christmas and Epiphany—although the latter isn’t a liturgical season in the Ordinary Rite anymore. Even so, that doesn’t mean it is less significant.
As such, many devout Catholics would assert that Christmastide officially ends on February 2. Many parishes would even still keep their nativity scenes until Candlemas.
Filipinos always try to find ways to make merry irrespective of their societal or financial statuses. That eventually makes Christmas in the Philippines more joyful and exciting. Despite all odds, with a seasonal storm in play, locals make sure to share and spread the Christmas joy.
Wherever in the world, you may be, may you feel the beauty of Christmas and spend it with the people that matter. Maligayang Pasko sa inyong lahat (Merry Christmas to all of you)!