Filipinos Ready to Resume Pasko Traditions, Almost Back to Pre-pandemic Days

by Edwin Quinabo

On this second Christmas year since the outbreak of COVID-19, already we see a return of some pre-pandemic Christmas traditions, but modified due to the ongoing pandemic. Black Friday returned. But retailers were sensitive to packing crowds for a one-day massive sale and potentially putting customers at risk that they’ve extended Black Friday discounts for one week. The result, wide-open store aisles, lots of parking, and a much more pleasant shopping experience, Black Friday enthusiasts say of this year’s set up.

While the commercial side of Christmas is making a comeback, the Christmas festivities Hawaii’s Filipino community normally celebrate have still been put on hold or will continue virtually.

The Annual Pasko sa FilCom (Christmas at the FilCom) that normally would be an all afternoon-early evening event with Christmas choral performances, festive food like linubian, or mashed cassava, tupig and bibingka, children’s games like pabitin and Pasko bingo, and a parol-making contest and table top Christmas tree contest will instead be held virtually for a second year.

The 15th Annual Pasko sa FilCom! will be streaming live on FB (everyone is invited), Sunday, December 12, 2021, 4-5 pm, Hawaii Standard Time. This year’s theme is Ngayong Pasko, Regalo Ko’y Kayo! (This Christmas, My Gift Is You!). There will be pre-recorded videos shown, submitted by members in our community, individuals, families, community and student organizations, and churches.

The other major Pasko event in Hawaii presented by the Filipino Association of University Women (FAUW) and the Honolulu Museum of Art (HMoA) is put on hold for a second year. HMoA is holding one Christmas event this year, it’s premier fundraising event (already sold out).  Normally Pasko at HMoA would have parol-making demonstrations, Christmas trees decorated with indigenous Filipino materials, a Noche Buena table, entertainment and a tour of HMoA’s Art of the Philippines gallery. HoMA is the only museum outside of the Philippines to have a full gallery dedicated to Philippine art.

Besides Hawaii, community Pasko events are being pushed back for another year by most Filipino organizations from California to New York.

Tradition of Remittances to the Philippines
One Christmas tradition many Hawaii Filipinos plan to restart to pre-pandemic form is sending Christmas remittances to family and friends in the Philippines.  Uncertainty of the pandemic and joblessness kept some Hawaii Filipinos from practicing this tradition last year.

In Hawaii, there were over 67,000 people unemployed in December 2020 or a 10.3% unemployment rate. Of those unemployed, only about half or 32,000 Hawaii residents were able to collect unemployment, according to the US Dept of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In comparison going into the holiday this November 2021, the Hawaii unemployment rate was 6.3% or 41,000 people were jobless.

The improvement in employment should have outgoing remittances from Hawaii on the rise again.

Leonard Polanco, 56, Pearl City, an executive chef at one of Waikiki’s largest hotels, was able to send remittances last year and plans to do it again.  He says some of his Filipino staff who were on furlough now are back at work so those who normally would send remittances can continue this tradition.

“This year my last aunty on my mother’s side passed away from COVID-19. She lived on the mainland so that means one less in our family in the US sending money back to our family in the Philippines. But we have several of us still carrying on this tradition, besides myself, my siblings also do it. My sister collects our donations and she sends it all in one remittance. We might decide to pick up the slack from our aunty who passed away.”

Leonard said he’s happy that he has other relatives in the United Kingdom and Italy who grew up in the Philippines but are now citizens of England and Italy.

“I’m certain they will also be sending money. I only have a few cousins left in the Philippines. But since I became an adult and earned an income, my mother would ask me and my siblings to donate to our relatives back in the Philippines. My mother passed away seven years ago. But we’ve been doing this every Christmas for decades now and we don’t plan on stopping. My parents would want us to continue this tradition,” said Polanco.

This year’s holiday remittances already are back on track from the pandemic, according to government data. The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas reports that money remittances sent to the Philippines is up from last year.  The latest reporting this past September showed a 4.8% climb from last September, standing at $3.02 billion. The cumulative total in the first nine-month period this year is $25.69 billion — a 5.7% growth.

The vast majority of this money are sent to the Philippines from Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) — workers from the Philippines living and working in another country, typically on a temporary basis. But from Polanco and tens of thousands of Filipinos around the world including expats and their descendants, the Philippines historically gets a large boost during the holidays beyond OFW remittances to their family.

Dr. Celia Lamkin, Saipan, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands ( CNMI) USA, said she remits to the Philippines even if it’s not Christmas.

“I send remittances to my siblings as their Christmas gifts, relatives, and to people who are in need, especially the sectors in the West Philippine Sea such as our Scarborough Shoal fishermen in Masinloc, Zambales, Kalayaan fishermen, the military and civilian residents in Pagasa Island, Kalayaan, and the brave military men at BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal.”

Like last year, Dr. Lamkin plans to remit more because of the pandemic. She said those who receive remittances from her are grateful and appreciative. “The remittances [I send] have helped them and have put smiles on the children, for example, the students of the Pag-asa Elementary School in Pag-asa Island in Kalayaan Island Group ( KIG) in Palawan, West Philippine Sea.”

Philippine Monetary authorities forecast remittances to grow by 4% this year, an optimism based on reopening of economies around the globe and continued demand for OFWs, many of whom are professionals in the medical field.Joshua Labung, 23, Cainta, Rizal Philippines, said he receives remittances from his family in the U.S.

For Labung, receiving a Christmas remittance, he says, “means that even though my family in the US is far from us, on Christmas, they still haven’t forgotten us.  It doesn’t just ease spending for the holidays, but it’s [the remittance] their way of saying they love us, and that they’re sorry that they are not here with us on Christmas.”

Remittance services
There are many companies in Hawaii that offer remittance services to the Philippines. Of those listed in Yelp with Hawaii ratings, PNB Remittance Center received the highest number of stars.

But the sampling is too few to make a judgement based only on this rating alone. There are independent reviews on money transfers like,, and others. When looking over reviews, it’s important to know who is conducting the review to ensure it is an independent source.

There is a fee for each remittance usually under 6% of the total amount being sent. Some banks will offer this service. There are large money transfer companies like Western Union and Paypal services like Xoom.

Remittance transfers have gotten so efficient that cash pickup in the Philippines could be available as soon as one hour or sooner. There are also remittance apps for those who send money on a regular basis. There are also reviews on these apps as well; this is an indicator of how large the worldwide remittance industry is.

Money transfer experts suggest a few things to ask a company representative (besides fees) to help you make the right decision for you:  Can you send money directly into a bank account in the Philippines? What is the nearest pickup location relative to the person you are sending it to? Do they have a door delivery service? It’s recommended that you jot these answers down and don’t make an immediate decision until consulting with the person who will receive the remittance.

It’s recommended that you do your own research and ask family and friends which companies they trust and use.

You should also familiarize yourself with the platform-method the transfer is being done and feel confident about that mode. It could range from very low-tech (that usually means more people involved and it will take longer) to very high-tech as simple as depositing money into an account (but you also don’t know who has access to that specific account besides the intended recipient). The best choice is to find the optimal combination that will work for you and the person receiving the remittance, experts say.

Sylvia Ramos, 59, Makakilo, sends about $500 each Christmas to relatives in the Philippines. She pays a fee of $10.

It’s so convenient with Western Union. My cousin in the Philippines is able to pick up the money at a Western Union outlet within an hour of me completing the transaction. I used to go through a small remittance company in Kalihi years ago. They charged not much more but because they would deliver the money via door-to-door services, the delivery time would take two days.”

Ramos said the $500 she sends is for a few relatives, but one person receives it to be distributed as she instructs.

“Hopefully they can use that money for a Christmas gift. With the pandemic hurting the economy there, may be the money this year could go to something more essential like to pay bills.”

Sylvia said she sends remittances because she is reminded of the three kings bearing gifts to the Christ child.

“It’s something I think of when giving aguinaldos (gifts) during the Christmas season. For her, Christmas is foremost a religious holiday. This is something taught to me by my parents and something I emphasize to my children. This holiday is about Christ being sent by God into the world. And for this we are thankful and we celebrate,” she said.

Simbang Gabi, Misa de Gallo, Noche Buena – all deep in religiosity
The three most prominent traditions of Pasko or Filipino Christmas — the Simbang Gabi, Misa de Gallo and Noche Buena — are anchored in religiosity. While commercialism is fun, it takes a backseat to the religious significance of Christmas, for Filipinos like Sylvia and millions of others.

“My mother would tell me stories of what Christmas was like when she grew up in Ilocos Sur, Philippines.  She said her family and neighbors would wake up early before sunrise, walk to Saint Augustine Church for Simbang Gabi(Christmas masses held from Dec. 16 through Dec. 24).”

Simbang Gabi is a distinctly Catholic Christian tradition held in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“My mom said the masses were very early so that the people could attend them then go to work in the fields. If it was at night or late afternoon, it would be harder for workers because they would be too tired. Farmers have to get up early anyway, my mom would say.”

The Simbang Gabi acts as a prelude or spiritual preparation for the Misa de Gallo (Christmas Eve mass) that signals the birth of Christ. 

The Simbang Gabi is similar (but much more abbreviated) to how the Lenten season prepares Catholics for the culmination of Easter, the day of Christ’s resurrection. Misa de Gallo is the last day of Simbang Gabi but it is celebrated at or near midnight.

The beloved parol, the star-shaped Christmas lantern that Filipinos cherish, also has a religious significance. It represents the Star of Bethlehem that led the three kings to Christ’s manger. In the Philippines, the parol is arguably more popular than the Christmas tree.

Christmas Eve events, traditional vs modern sequence
In the Philippines, the traditional sequence on the Eve of Christmas would be for Filipino Catholics to attend the Misa de Gallo then return home for Noche Buena (full Christmas Eve dinner) that most likely would include the celebrated national festive dish, lechon (succulent pig).

Prior to the Misa de Gallo (to prevent hunger pangs) families would partake in sweet treats, rice cakes and festive desserts like cassava cake, maja blanca, halayang ube. During this time carolers would make their rounds around the neighborhood. By the time Noche Buena starts, everyone would have built up a big appetite.

For Labung and his family, they celebrate the main traditions on Christmas Eve, but like most Americans, the Labungs follow a different sequence, by having the Noche Buena then attending the Misa de Gallo the next day, early morning of Christmas. Another popular alternative is to have the Noche Buena early evening and still have enough time to attend midnight mass on the eve of Christmas.

He said, “On Christmas eve we prepare food for the family and prepare the gifts we would give to each other. We then eat together as a family and bond until the clock hits midnight. On Christmas itself, we go to mass to thank the Lord for another Christmas, and for the blessings we have received. After mass, we then hangout together and maybe go to the mall.”

Dr. Lamkin usually has her Noche Buena at midnight on Christmas eve. She said her typical Noche Buena would have pancit, buko pandan, gelatin, halaya or ube jam, fruit salad, chicken noodle soup (sopas), chicken adobo, lumpiang shanghai, ham, suman or rice cake, puto.

Pandemic still a concern
For the same reasons Pasko celebrations in Hawaii have been put off for a second year, Philippine residents are also having reservations over this holiday season.

Bea Sampaga, 22, Pasig City, said even though the Philippines is starting to lax some of the pandemic protocols, she and her family are still refraining from going out frequently. When they do, they make sure to go to a mall less crowded.

“We will be celebrating Christmas at home just like last year. I plan to shop for food before the week of Christmas to make sure I can avoid the crowd. I’m excited to cook food for my family and we can eat our hearts out during Noche Buena,” said Sampaga.

Dr. Lamkin plans to celebrate Christmas with her two boys in Guam and family members in the Philippines as she did last year, virtually. “This will be the second Christmas that we won’t be physically present with our children which is really sad.”

She said even though they’ll be having a virtual family gathering again, the spirit of Christmas-giving will be the same.

“We can always give and help during Christmas and any day of the year because helping other people does not need to be done only during Christmas. We help others to the best of our capabilities [whenever we can]. For me, everyday should be Christmas.”

Thankful for changes this holiday

Bea said she’s thankful this Christmas year for the simple, mundane things like just being able to go out and shop. She described last Christmas as being very lonely and feeling trapped due to the “stay-at-home” lockdowns.

Already she says things have changed this Christmas season. “This year, I got to go out. Especially now that I’m planning my Christmas shopping by visiting multiple stores. I’m very thankful that I get to do this mundane task of shopping (or window shopping) just before Noche Buena.”

With the easing of restrictions, Labung said he would like to go out together with his family to Tagaytay or go to the beach to get fresh air and to relax this holiday season. “Having been in this pandemic for almost two years, it really does take a toll on our well-being. But as a family, it helped us become closer and take care of each other more,” he said.

Pasko traditions at core has universal meaning
While she and her family stick to the Pasko traditions, Sylvia said ultimately Filipino Pasko has the same meaning that almost every family observing Christmas has which is “to celebrate God in one’s life, celebrate family and friends, and celebrate life itself.”

Leonard said he’s thankful for the gains Hawaii has made in controlling the virus.

“Now we can ease up a bit and enjoy each other for the holidays. This is our reward, our gift this Christmas for doing the right things like getting vaccinated. What would be a bigger gift next year this time around Christmas is if we no longer have the pandemic. We would be able to have our Noche Buena completely as it used to be before covid, be with as many of our loved ones we want and just have fun with no worries.”

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