Filipinos Share How They Celebrate Christmas

By Edwin Quinabo

It’s no accident that tens of thousands of Filipinos trek miles upon miles to return to their original province in the country to celebrate Christmas in the Philippines.

Many of today’s Filipino Christmas traditions have their origins from the days of simple farming life in the countryside and centered around the local Catholic Church located in the town’s square.

parol — a Philippine Christmas lantern usually made of bamboo sticks, paper, and shaped into a five pointed star – was used before street lights went up to guide the faithful through the dark on their way to church similar to how the star of Bethlehem (representation of the (continue on page 5) parol) guided the three Kings to the birth of Jesus.

Simbang Gabi or Misa de Gallo – nine-day attendance of mass to say the novena starting Dec. 16 to Christmas Eve – starts at the crack of dawn as early as a 4:00 am. The super early mass was practical to country folks as farmers typically headed to the fields before sunrise to get as much work done before the blistering heat kicks in.

Christ’s birth, simplicity, family and community have always been the focal points of a traditional Filipino Christmas.

And Christmas 2020 could see a return to nostalgic practices more than years past as commercialism is expected to wane (in some cities under lockdown or curfew) and hardship has drawn many to God’s grace during this historic pandemic-crushing year.

Kaneohe resident Rose Churma recalls one of her most memorable Christmases in the countryside of Zambales, Philippines. Just before Christmas Dec. 16. 1973, her Lolo (grandfather) David passed away.

“It occurred to me that it [his death] signified the end of an era and the start of a new one. That [this Christmas] would be the last time his children and grandchildren gathered at the house he built in Zambales, where Christmas was celebrated in the traditional ways — where lechon (pig) was roasted, kankanin and various rice cakes, and ube halaya with leche flan were prepared,” recalled Churma.

The traditional preparation of lechon in the country side takes hours. Men in the family or extended family would wake up around 3 am, skewer the pig and set up a mechanical crank to rotate it over a pit of burning wood (temperature hot but not high flamed). By about 5 am, the crank begins rotating the lechon which will cook until the skin is crisp and golden brown. In the old days sometimes there was no mechanical crank and the men would take turns rotating the lechon.

The women in the household usually were tasked to prepare all the classic holiday desserts.

Churma elaborates on that memorable Christmas. “The children made mano po to all the elders and received an aguinaldo in crisp paper bills. It [that Christmas] signified the beginning of new traditions in the cities—with Christmas trees as the main decor, and parols are bought rather than made. It was a bittersweet gathering, when all knew that the Christmas that we knew would evolve into something else.”

Mano po is a traditional show of respect and greeting to elders in which children would raise a hand of an elder and touched it lightly onto their own forehead.

Aguinaldo, literally meaning Christmas bonus in Spanish, is the Filipino practice of giving a Christmas gift, usually money in the form of fresh peso bills in envelopes.

While 1973 was the end of an era for Christmas family gatherings for her family, Churma says Rosa Farms (her grandparents’ farm in Zambales) have been preparing parol kits for decades until now – kits that are used thousands of miles away during parol-making workshops held annually at the Honolulu Museum of Arts.

The modern parols are a lot more showy than the simple lanterns of old. Churma says some have swirling lights when plugged in. She says she has a handmade parol made from recycled aloha shirts.

Modern parol-making is very creative with the use of different materials like cellophane and washi paper (paper from Japan) besides the traditional capiz shells. The FilCom Center’s annual Christmas celebration holds a parol-making contest to get local Hawaii Filipinos involved in Filipino Christmas traditions.

Jim Bea Sampaga, a former Hawaii resident who recently returned to the Philippines, described some of her family’s Filipino Christmas practices. The Sampagas normally order their lechon from Cebu where it is prepared with an abundance of spices that are layered onto the lechon while being cooked. Cebu is famous for its lechon and restaurants receive Christmas orders from across the country. The Cebu-style lechon is described as being tasty all by itself while other lechon prepared in other places like Manila is said to rely on sauces for taste.

The lechon is the main dish of most Filipino families for Noche Buena, a lavish late dinner feast on the Eve of Christmas that family and friends would partake in well into early Christmas morning.

“My cousins and I would help prep and cook our own dishes to share for Noche Buena. When the clock hits 12 am, we would all start exchanging gifts. And even do some quick and fun games so we can win some cash prizes ranging from P20 to P1000. We would stay up all night, sing karaoke and eat a lot of good food until we pass out,” said Sampaga.

Early Christmas morning would be another traditional practice when younger children and young adults would walk through the neighborhood caroling.

Before going out to shop, dine or cruise the malls, Sampaga said she and her siblings would accompany younger family members to visit neighbors. “Our little ones would knock door to door, greeting our neighbors ‘Merry Christmas!’ in hopes that some of our neighbors would give them an aguinaldo.

“Giving out aguinaldo is definitely actively practiced in our family and neighborhood. Although my parents have shifted the way they practice giving out aguinaldo. Usually, you would always give these cash gifts to most kids but now my parents just reserve them for their inaanaks (godchildren). What we do now is that we prepare these little goodie bags filled with candy, chocolate and small toys to give out to the neighborhood kids when they come by our house,” said Sampaga.

To Americans it would be like trick-or-treating on Christmas day, without the ghoul but with the joy of Christ’s birth in children’s thoughts and hearts as they spread cheer in the neighborhood.

One of the most celebrated Filipino Christmas traditions is attending the Midnight Mass on the eve of Christmas. Oahu resident Imelda Joaquin said as a deaconess at her church, she’s there by 10 pm to start preparing for midnight services. During the pandemic Joaquin has been helping her congregation to worship in safe and socially distant ways. “This Christmas Eve, I’m thankful that our church will still offer the opportunity to celebrate Christmas Eve. The next day will be filled with food and fun,” said Joaquin.

Mary Calayan of Pateros Philippines said her family usually attend church on Christmas day. “It is our way of giving thanks to the Lord for our Savior is born,” she said. She says she practices the Simbang Gabi starting Dec. 16, that many say is the perfect prelude to become more spiritually prepared before the grand celebration on Christmas day. For many Filipinos, Christmas is a religious holiday, a religious season.

Like small businesses, churches in communities throughout the world have been hard hit by the lockdowns as empty pews meant less collections in the donations they depend on to pay their bills. In some communities with widespread infections, it’s possible that churches might not be opened for Christmas.

Risk factors and how Filipinos plan to minimize them this Christmas
It’s not just the possible closure of churches and shopping venues that could alter Christmas. Like Thanksgiving this year, many families are expected to scale back and follow CDC recommended guidelines of celebrating with those only in their household or keeping the gathering to 10 or under.

Even with CDC guidelines of social distancing 6 feet apart and mask wear, MIT researcher John Bush, a professor of applied mathematics call the guidelines “dangerous” and “overly simplistic” because when you’re indoors, microscopic droplets are trapped right alongside of you in a confined space. He says it’s unlikely for people to keep 6 feet a part for the entire duration of hours at a holiday gathering; and of course the chance to inhale a droplet from an infected person could likely happen when masks are removed to eat, however brief it might be. Then he adds there is also the issue of people not wearing their masks properly.

Bush has calculated variables of indoor gatherings and risk-levels down to the second. His rule of thumb is the longer someone stays in a confined indoor gathering and the larger the group, both of these will increase your chances of contracting COVID-19 by seconds, if someone infected is present. And the gamble is no one really knows who is or isn’t asymptomatic to the coronavirus.

Joaquin said, “This Christmas is not like any other. But if we want to return to our regular festivities in the future, this year we will have to adjust. As good neighbors, we have to abide by public safety rules, which means wearing masks and staying socially distant — whether we’re out Christmas shopping or meeting a small group of friends for an outdoor holiday dinner. That’s the most important way that we can support frontline workers until we find our way out of this pandemic.”

She said she won’t be celebrating with her entire family this year. But adds that we can still find ways to make the holiday deeply meaningful. For Joaquin, that means she will still be thanking God for everything she has. “I will be praying that everyone gets a chance to celebrate with loved ones next year. And I will be sending prayers of strength, hope, and peace to those families who have to honor the memory of loved ones they have lost.”

While Christmas day might be different, Joaquin points out to the seasonal festivities that keeps the holiday cheerful. “For our family, Christmas starts in November. A few weeks before Thanksgiving, we pull our decorations from storage and start trimming the entire home, inside and out. Christmas trees will still fill every corner of our house, adorned with ornaments that we’ve collected over the years — including my son’s preschool projects, mementos from my daughters’ childhood performances in ‘The Nutcracker,’ and souvenirs from our travels all over the world. And even though my husband, Nick, won’t sing in our church’s annual performance of ‘Messiah,’ he’ll still play Christmas carols from the piano in our living room.”

Churma said her family will do the same as they’ve been doing each Christmas just with less people. The number of invited guests will be limited to five. So her multi-cultural pot luck will go on with their roast turkey prepared Puerto Rican style, her pancit guisado, her sister-in-law’s tray of sushi made from scratch, and all the sides and desserts. And they will be exchanging gifts.

Sampaga who will be celebrating Christmas in Pasig, Philippines said her family will scale back the celebration this year. “We will celebrate Christmas in our home without outside guests. We will cook our own dishes as much as possible to lessen ordering food outside. But if we do, we will definitely make sure to sanitize every container and cutlery. As for celebrating with our extended family, video calls on Facebook Messenger will definitely do for now.”

Calayan put it succinctly without much detail. “We will celebrate with discipline to our surrounding.”

“This year, I’m especially reminded that Christmas is meant to be shared with the people you love. And I’m so grateful that I’m fortunate enough to spend the holidays with my family. As the years go by, my perspective on Christmas grows clearer. While it’s always heartwarming to see my home decorated so festively, I know there’s much more to the holiday than tinsel, ribbon, and lights. This year, I’ve been separated from so many friends and family members. More than ever before, I’ve realized how important it is to make meaningful memories with the people we love, and to value the precious time that we have together. This year, I’m also taking more time to reflect on my blessings, and how I can best support those who have been most impacted during this difficult time.”

– Imelda Joaquin, Aiea

Meaning of Christmas
Christmas 2020 is expected to undergo a few changes in tradition due to the coronavirus. For some, the meaning of the holiday also has changed slightly, to one that’s deeper felt.

“This year, I’m especially reminded that Christmas is meant to be shared with the people you love. And I’m so grateful that I’m fortunate enough to spend the holidays with my family,” said Joaquin. “As the years go by, my perspective on Christmas grows clearer. While it’s always heartwarming to see my home decorated so festively, I know there’s much more to the holiday than tinsel, ribbon, and lights.

“This year, I’ve been separated from so many friends and family members. More than ever before, I’ve realized how important it is to make meaningful memories with the people we love, and to value the precious time that we have together. This year, I’m also taking more time to reflect on my blessings, and how I can best support those who have been most impacted during this difficult time,” she adds.

Like Joaquin, Sampaga and Churma echoed a similar meaning of Christmas.

Sampaga said, “Christmas means family and love to me. It’s that time of the year where you get to spend the most precious time with the people you love.”

Churma put it this way, “Christmas always is meant to be a time for gathering family around and expressing gratitude for the blessings of the past and anticipating the wonderful things the future will bring.”

Christmas wish
When asked what their Christmas wish is, it’s not a surprise that a typical answer was related to the turbulence and tragedy of the pandemic.

“My wish this Christmas is that everyone would still hopefully practice social distancing so that we can all go back to ‘normal’ soon. This is another holiday that huge crowds are so hard to avoid but I hope that everyone will try their best to follow the safety and social distancing guidelines. I just want the world to heal and go back to normal. Sure, the vaccine is on its way but we still have to be careful. Please avoid having big holiday parties, there is still a pandemic going on,” said Sampaga.

Cruz wishes that a vaccine for COVID-19 is readily available and effective to curb the virus.

For tens of thousands of people around the world, at this very second they are battling to survive from the deadly virus and hoping for another chance to spend Christmas with their families. And their families are praying for a miracle that God’s plan would allow for this to happen.

Joaquin shared a special story of a miracle and Christmas: “My youngest daughter was born on Dec. 27, 1988. “We almost lost her, but God answered our prayers and sent her home with us. She was a Christmas miracle, and I’ve thanked heaven every day since.”

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