December 25, 2015

Christmas in the Philippines: The Things I Miss

Traditional Filipino Parol with lights / Photo source: AMS Daily

Christmas is about done in the Philippines as I write this. For us, it's today. During this time, I time travel - back into those days when I was young, in the country where I was born and raised, enjoying the days and nights with my brothers and sisters and friends leading to Christmas day.

Night Mass / Photo: Clarkisit

Night Mass. Food Hunt.
The Philippines' predominant religion is Roman Catholicism and it is ingrained in the way Christmas is celebrated in the country. Though I, nor my family, did not grow up Catholic, my immediate relatives and friends were. Which means, we got to experience the rituals and religious traditions related to the celebration of Christmas, the catholic way - and this, by tagging along - only so to satisfy our curiosities - and the sweet treat that we get along the way to and from the church.

The night mass (Misa de Gallo / Simbang Gabi) or Midnight mass starts on December 16 and ends on December 24. The mass begins around 4am. I remember when I was much younger, I would bundle up real good because it gets a tad chilly at that time of the morning, or my aunt would yell at me for not wearing the "proper" clothing.  During this time, there are no immediate public ride available either, so we walk. Long walk! Roads were also dark and seem eerie but after a while it gets festive with lights from people's flashlights illuminating the dark streets as they also make their way to the church located in the center of the city. Other times, if we get lucky, we can cut our walk short by boarding a canoe-for-hire across the river. A big river runs through our city and connects the sub-city neighborhood with bridges that also served as main roads.  I love the river rides. Crossing across the calm waters were always mesmerizing, lights reflecting back like it was bouncing off a mirror.

However, I don't remember much about what goes on at the night mass. I usually fall asleep right in the middle of it, either out of exhaustion, plain sleepiness or boredom. But fun starts after the mass. Right on the churchyard and all over the roadside leading towards the church, tons of food vendors can be found selling holiday delicacies for breakfast. Popular offering is the famous Bibingka, puto bumbong, puto kutsinta, puto and a whole lot more!

When I got older, I discovered that this holiday foods are also available from dusk all throughout the night. I got smart. I started gathering friends and most often than not, my siblings, to do nightly treks to buy our favorite holiday foods and bring them home as midnight snacks to enjoy with the family. At this point, you can guess, I stopped going to the Night Mass with my late Aunt.

This is by far my favorite thing about Christmas in the Philippines which I do with my siblings and friends. And there's partly an entrepreneurial reason for it. But most of all, it was an opportunity to hone our singing abilities and sharpen our vocal prowess. In the Philippines, it is traditional to go from house to house to Carol and get "tips" for it. The better you hit the high and right notes, the bigger tip you get. We were good. We were all Choir singers. We had a great guitarist in our little ensemble. As you can guess, we did really well each year even though at times we would "lose" our voices from too much singing! However, beyond all these, caroling became a bond that made our friendship stronger and made our voices better.

Red Envelopes
We get them from our Ninongs and Ninangs (Godfathers/Godmothers). Red envelope-giving is a tradition influenced by Chinese customs. A community that makes up 27% of the country's population. They're also given by well-off relatives who most of the time, prefer to give monetary gifts in place of wrapped gifts - to the delight of us young and not-so-young kids!

Christmas starts in September
Believe it. As soon as the first "ber" month arrives, Christmas celebration ensues. A great indication would be Christmas songs immediately played on the radio. Though we have one major holiday before Christmas, All Soul's day, it doesn't seem to be a deterrent in keeping the majority from decorating for the holidays.

Parol being blessed at the night mass / photo: St. James Cathedral

Parol - Christmas Lantern
Parol is a traditional Filipino Christmas lantern that symbolizes the arrival of Christmas. I love making them. They come in different forms and sizes. From small to really huge ones! Plain, colorful to intricate. The best ones are those that are rigged with tons of Christmas lights. They serve as great holiday decor in most homes and a creative project for most kids.

These memories never grow old. I do. And I do miss those days gone once in a while. Most of all, I miss my siblings and the times shared with them. I know there is no way to turn back time but as long as my brain allows me to remember these memories vividly, I will always find joy in knowing that I have great memories to remind me of my life during the holidays back when I was growing up in the Philippines. And the peace I felt in my heart.

I wish each and everyone of you a very Merry Christmas whichever and wherever part of the world you are. And to my fellow Filipinos all over the world, Maligayang Pasko sa inyong lahat! Merry Christmas to all of you and may PEACE begin with you! 

"Let there be peace on earth

And let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth
The peace that was meant to be.
With God as our Father
Brothers all are we.
Let me walk with my brother
In perfect harmony.

Let peace begin with me

Let this be the moment now.
With every step I take
Let this be my solemn vow.
To take each moment
And live each moment
With peace eternally.
Let there be peace on earth,
And let it begin with me."


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