Some people are fond of complaining that the holiday season starts too early in the U.S. Christmas garlands sometimes compete with plastic jack-o'-lanterns on store shelves around Halloween. But this Christmas creep is nothing compared with the Philippines. In that country, Christmas celebrations start on Sept. 1.
More than 100 days before Christmas Day, the Philippines (which comprises 7,641 islands in Southeast Asia) transforms into a veritable holiday wonderland. Christmas carols play on the radio while Christmas shows take over television sets. Seemingly overnight, shopping centers display their best Christmas décor. The Philippines grabs the title for the longest Christmas celebration in the world.
"Once the -ber months hit — September, October, November, December — in the Philippines, you can hear Christmas jingles and songs being played in malls and parks, and even sung in the streets," says Joe Michael Valdez, who has been a Manila resident most of his life, in an email interview. "The malls and shopping centers also start to display their Christmas lights and decorations, and the area really starts to light up during the nights. There are a wide variety of antics, customs and even decorations, from Santa and his sled all the way to the nativity of Jesus Christ."
Beginning in September, children and adults form groups in the streets of the Philippines to sing Christmas carols as they walk from house to house. They will herald the coming season to each household along the way, and the merry bands often are greeted with gifts of coins or treats, or donations to the fundraising efforts they represent.
"You will know that Christmas really is just around the corner when the caroling starts to kick in," says Valdez. "Children and teens tend to walk around communities, singing Christmas jingles and songs at every household, using self-made instruments like tambourines made from flattened bottle caps held together by a thin wire or seeds sealed inside bottles. Caroling is much like trick or treating, except it is done at Christmas and instead of candies and chocolates, we usually give coins."
Why Christmas Starts in September
For as long as he can remember, Valdez says the Philippines' Christmas celebration has started in September, without any well-known historical explanation as to why. For many Filipinos, it is simply a beloved tradition in a country where 86 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic. The Christian religion was first introduced to the Philippines in 1565 when Spanish explorers began colonialization efforts.
A close study of human nature, however, may provide an alternative answer for the tradition's staying power, according to Clifford Sorita, a sociologist and professor at Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila [University of the City of Manila] in the Philippines.
"The most simple explanation for the Philippines' long Christmas season is our psychological framework to count down the days to big celebrations," Sorita told Rappler.com, a Filipino news website. "By knowing exactly how much time we have remaining to complete a task, instead of stressing about it, we will be able to better allocate our time." He added that the lengthy countdown "also acts as a secondary motivator and reinforces us Filipinos to complete our Christmas tasks before the big day."
Ed Timbungco, corporate communications consultant and PR professor at De La Salle-College of St. Benilde in Manila also told Rappler that while many people thought the early date was driven solely by the malls, that was not the case. "Filipinos supported the extended observance of Christmas because we are really suckers for anything that will allow us to celebrate and spend more time with our loved ones," he said.
From Simbang Gabi to Media Noche
As soon as the Christmas carolers strike a chord, Filipinos typically begin decorating their homes with festive Christmas lanterns called parols. These five-pointed stars are usually crafted from bamboo sticks and colored paper or cellophane and are now lit inside by LED lights rather than traditional candles. Parols symbolize the Star of Bethlehem that appears in the Christian nativity.
Christmas festivities in the Philippines remain in full force through September, October and November, leading up to Dec. 16, when Simbang Gabi begins.
"Simbang Gabi, which literally translates to 'night mass,' is a nine-day advent mass with the last mass happening on Christmas Eve," says Valdez. "At a very young age, I was taught that if I completed all nine masses, on the last mass, I could make a wish and it would come true."
Around the time of the advent masses, just outside the church grounds, temporary food stalls with vendors selling purple rice cakes topped with sugar, butter, coconut flakes and sometimes cheese, known as puto bumbong will pop up. "This type of rice cake is very popular, especially during the Christmas season," says Valdez, "and is a must-have after attending mass."
In addition to a traditional exchange of gifts on Christmas Eve, many Filipino families will attend the final mass of Simbang Gabi, called misa de gallo (rooster's mass) which is a Christmas Eve early morning church service (held 3-5 a.m.) that often includes candle-lighting, a recreation of the Nativity scene and singing. The celebration continues with a feast shared with family and friends, known as Noche Buena or "night of goodness," on Christmas Eve.
The Christmas celebration in the Philippines continues throughout December, with the feast of Media Noche taking place on Jan. 1, new year's day, which signifies the abundance that is hoped for in the coming months. The Christmas season continues through Jan. 6, until the Feast of Three Kings, which officially marks the end of the Christmas holiday in the Philippines.
"The Christmas celebration in the Philippines has changed over the years," says Keziah Carter, co-founder of a job website for Filipino remote workers, in an email interview. "The traditional way of celebrating Christmas is by attending Catholic mass, spending time with family and exchanging gifts. However, now there are also more commercialized ways of celebrating Christmas, such as going to parties, buying expensive gifts and decorating homes and offices with extravagant Christmas decorations."
Overall, the changes in how Christmas is celebrated in the Philippines may reflect the changing times and values of Filipino society. "While some people prefer to stick to traditional celebrations," Carter says, "others enjoy the more modern and commercialized aspects of Christmas."
For most people of the Philippines, the festivities are a bright spot throughout the fall and winter months — and they'll be set to do it again as soon as the calendar flips to September.
Now That's Interesting
Traditionally, Christmas turkeys don't appear at holiday feasts in the Philippines. Instead, lechon — a whole pig roast over charcoal — is the tasty centerpiece.
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