If you think Christmas is just another holiday in the Philippines, think again! Every year, this Asian country officially launches the world’s longest Yuletide season on September 1 and ends on January 6. During these four festive months, Filipinos play Christmas songs incessantly, engage in non-stop Christmas gift shopping, and plan for their annual Christmas family gathering. For expats and visitors who want an extended celebration until the new year, the Philippines is the place to be!
Why is Christmas a big deal in the Philippines? Foremost, the country is predominantly Catholic, which means that observing the birth of Christ is a given. Add the fact that the country is a land of holidays, and you’ll see why many Filipinos want a headstart to the biggest holiday of the year. Additionally, Christmas in the Philippines is often tied to the “ber” months – September, October, November, and December. September 16 marks the start of the 100-day countdown to Christmas.
Over time, locals found it more exciting to include the whole of September to prepare for December 25. That’s why many non-Filipinos might find it surprising to hear Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” playing everywhere during the 1st day of September.
The Many Ways We Celebrate Christmas
When it comes to celebrating Christmas, Filipinos also have plenty of traditional activities. Many are based on religious themes, while others are more social. Either way, all activities are meant to keep the spirits high. Let’s look at some of the more popular Filipino traditions over the years.
Advent and “Simbang Gabi”
Literally Night Mass, Simbang Gabiis a series of nine consecutive masses leading to December 25. Instead of holding it during the daytime, churches open at night and early morning to celebrate masses. In addition, churches also celebrate the Advent season beginning the last week of November. During the four Sundays leading to Christmas, priests light one Advent candle a week until all four are shining bright in time for the birth of Christ. While this spectacle attracts Catholics in general, visitors and observers may find the phenomenon interesting, particularly for the bright, colorful garments worn by priests and the merry atmosphere before and after the Masses.
Christmas Parties and Christmas Family and Friend Gatherings
As far as Filipinos go, Christmas parties are unlimited. There’s one for the office, one for the neighborhood, and another one for relatives. Then, there’s the main party involving close friends. Wait, your schoolmates are also organizing a Christmas party, and it’s on party for each school you went to. Then, give time for parties for your sports club, social friends, and church group. After attending all these parties, you’ll soon realize why Pinoys need four months for Christmas.
Noche Buena and Christmas Food
On Christmas Eve, families gather around the table for a special feast. Before Christmas Eve, many Filipino households serve lugaw or pospas (porridge) to members coming from Mass. Of course, “Noche Buena” literally means “good night” in Spanish. But in the Philippines, that means a Christmas family gathering centered on traditional food and drink.
For starters, family members can have a cup of steaming chocolate batirol, or homemade cocoa. Sandwiches featuring traditional Chinese or Fiesta ham plus a slice of queso de bola (usually hard cheese such as Edam) should tide up the hungry ones until the main course arrives at midnight. Fruits are also plentiful at the table, mostly those of the round kind for luck. When the clock strikes twelve, the family gathers around the table in a sort of Thanksgiving prayer. Afterward, they share a meal featuring many awesome Filipino dishes, including embutido (meatloaf), hamonado (pork roll), morcon (beef roll), Kare-Kare (curry), and the everpresent pancit (noodles) and lumpiang shanghai (egg rolls).
Caroling and Namamasko
The tradition of caroling saw better days a few decades ago when every neighborhood assembled its best musicians to go around houses and sing traditional Christmas songs. Now, only a few groups work up the courage to go house-to-house and hope someone’s one. In return for the Christmas serenade, carolers greet the family with “Namamasko po!” which means “We’re greeting you Merry Christmas!” In return, households dutifully hand over an envelope containing cash. The amount depends on how well the carolers put up a show.
Aside from carolers, godchildren, and neighborhood kids practice this warm greeting on Christmas Day. Parents usually drive their godchildren to their godparents’ homes to greet them a Merry Christmas personally. In return, generous godparents shower their guests with gifts or money. Similarly, neighborhood kids will visit their more affluent neighbors to wish them Happy Holidays. They often leave carrying a small token, food, or cash.
Giving and Exchanging Gifts
Give ‘til it hurts. This is the prevailing wisdom among many Filipinos come Christmas Day. When it comes to Christmas gift-giving, you can’t go wrong. While it’s fun to receive, it’s even better to give. Thankfully, many Pinoys devote a lot of time, effort, and money to buying, wrapping, and presenting gifts for their loved ones. Some prefer giving generously to select recipients, while others prefer getting smaller tokens so that everybody gets one.
During Christmas parties or Christmas family gatherings, many Pinoys love organizing exchange gift events. Known as “Secret Santa” for the rest of the world, many Filipinos happily pick a random “baby” to adopt as the recipient. The choice of gift depends on a list provided by the “baby,” along with the organizer’s rules on themes or spending limits. The revelation happens during the scheduled Christmas party. For families, the revelation is usually set on Christmas Eve.
The Best Places for Christmas Family Gatherings
Expect traffic to climb up several notches as Christmas approaches, as many Filipinos scramble between parties and shopping malls. Your favorite restaurant will often close for private functions or the staff Christmas party, so make sure you check their social pages for any schedule changes.
Office workers should have no problems organizing their Christmas party, thanks to their HR department. They often work in advance to book a hotel ballroom or a restaurant function room where employees can let their hair down for one day. Meanwhile, condominium residents also enjoy the exclusive privilege of renting out their private clubhouse or function room for Christmas parties. Of course, those who booked earlier get the prime dates.
The Best Christmas Destinations in the Philippines for Christmas Family Gatherings
Meanwhile, large families or a gang of friends will often take the opportunity to go on an out-of-town spree. Some Philippine destinations are better suited for hosting Christmas parties, so many groups congregate in these places during the days before Christmas to celebrate the holidays hassle-free. Among the more popular tourist spots during the Yuletide season are the following:
Tagaytay and Baguio
Those wanting a feeling of actual winter during Christmas will probably head for either Tagaytay or Baguio, which are known for their high elevation and cold weather. Tagaytay is a popular summer destination south of Metro Manila and features a cool breeze year-round. Meanwhile, Baguio is the country’s summer capital and boasts of single-digit temperatures during year-end. Dotted with pine trees and log cabin-style homes, Baguio and Tagaytay offer the coolest way to spend your Christmas family gatherings in the Philippines. Plus, you get to sample lots of local delicacies such as peanut brittle and strawberry jam (Baguio). Meanwhile, Tagaytay offers coconut pie, local coffee, and bulalo (bone marrow soup).
Meanwhile, others who hate the cold will warm up to spending Christmas on the beach. And what better location is there than one of the world’s best beaches, Boracay? Powdery white sand, sparkling blue water, and a picturesque sunset all combine to make this island a true paradise. With plenty of hotels, inns, restaurants, and bars on full duty, families and friends can go on 24/7 party mode without worrying about Manila’s Christmas chaos.
San Fernando, Pampanga
If it’s Christmas you want, it’s Christmas you’ll get in the Christmas capital of the Philippines. This moniker started when tourists flocked to San Fernando to view (and hopefully buy) their famous Christmas lanterns. These lanterns get centerstage once a year during the city’s Ligligan Parul festival, where locals create giant Parol masterpieces and parade them around town. It’s not just a procession of lanterns, though. Each barangay (county) in San Fernando spends a few weeks before December to construct their yearly entry in the Giant Lantern parade.
The Ligligan Parul concludes by choosing the best entry among the barangays. San Fernando has plenty of hotels and dining establishments. It’s also a short drive to Clark, which has even more places to go to in between your Christmas family gatherings.
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