The Global Origins of Philippine Christmas
Words by Blessie Adlaon
Philippine Christmas customs come from different countries all over the world. Can we say, then, that they are truly Filipino?
Caroling. Misa de Gallo. Noche Buena. Parol. Panunuluyan. Monito Monita.
These are some of the things and practices we Pinoys have come to associate with the Filipino celebration of Christmas. Indeed, Christmas in the Philippines seems incomplete if we don’t encounter all – or at least, most – of these things and practices during the holiday celebration.
But how many of them are truly Pinoy? Let’s take a closer look at the origins of these well-loved elements of the Filipino Christmas and find out:
The 16th of December is a much-awaited date for Filipinos, for two reasons: for the general populace, it is the start of the early morning novena masses we call the Misa de Gallo, which heralds that yes, Christmas Day is truly near.
And for the children, December 16 signals the long-awaited time when they can finally begin to go caroling without the risk of a dismissive “Patawad (Pardon)” at every house they visit.
Oh, how impatiently these mercenary little folk had waited for this day to come! When they arrive singing at your gate, you know what they’re there for. You’d best give them the peso they are hankering after or be musically taunted, “Thank you, thank you, ang babarat ninyo (you’re so miserly), thank you!”
Admit it: you did the same thing too when you were a kid. And remember also that often, you had a noble purpose for your earnings: you used it to buy gifts for your loved ones, or contributed it to the Noche Buena fund. The money we gained from our caroling made our Christmas feast a little more merry and a little more filling.
So why not let these little ones indulge in the same lucrative fun you had when you were their age?
As fond as our memories of caroling in the Philippines were, however, we must realize that this Filipino Christmas custom is not really ours. Historically, this practice of “singing for his supper” was done by the Anglo-Saxon peasants in the 16th century, if not earlier. They went around in winter, singing at the doors of the nobles, looking for warm, filling drinks in return.
So if you find this practice of singing for money a little annoying now that you’re older and on the non-singing side of the gate, you can comfort yourself with the thought that at least this practice of tuneful begging didn’t start from us.
MISA DE GALLO
From just its Spanish name, it’s easy to guess that the Misa de Gallo was a practice we got from Spain.
But then, your guess would be wrong.
Believe it or not, this nine-day early morning mass is a practice that is uniquely Filipino. It may have been started by the colonialist Spaniards, but they did so in the Philippines, not in their homeland. In fact, the closest thing to the Misa de Gallo that you could find in other countries is La Misa del Gallo of Spanish-speaking countries or the Missa do Galo of Portugal – but those are single-night masses, celebrated only on Christmas Eve.
This makes the novena mass we call Misa de Gallo something that is truly our own.
Panunuluyan is a Filipino word that means “asking for lodging.” This Christmas event is a reenactment of Joseph and Mary’s search for a place to stay on Christmas night. The man and woman playing the roles of Mary and Joseph go from house to house in their village, singing their plea for shelter while the owners of the houses declare their refusal, also in song.
At the end of their journey, Joseph and Mary find a place that will let them in. This could be a house, but often, the last stop of the Panunuluyan is set at the church.
Despite its Filipino name, this tradition actually has foreign roots. Las Posadas is a Spanish celebration said to have been started by Saint Ignatius of Loyola in Spain in 1538, long before Christianity was able to establish itself in the Philippines. Like the Panunuluyan, Las Posadas (which is the Spanish word for “lodgings”) features a reenactment of the Holy Couple’s search for a place where Mary could give birth to the King of kings.
Interestingly, there is one difference between the Panunuluyan of the Philippines and its Spanish counterpart: Las Posadas takes place not in one day, like the Panunuluyan, but through nine nights – like the Misa de Gallo. Also like the Misa de Gallo, it begins on the 16th of December and reaches its culmination on Christmas Eve.
Monito Monita, which can be translated into “pretty little boy and girl,” is a Christmas game popularly played in schools and offices in the country. If, by some rare and strange chance, you have never played it yourself, the mechanics are (1) you and a group of people draw lots to find which person among the group you’re supposed to give a gift to for several days; then (2) you give that person a daily gift but never let him or her know who the secret giver is.
Often, the secret giver is revealed on the last day of the game, when the most special gift is given.
Another name for this game is Kris Kringle, a corruption of Christkindl, or “the Christ child,” whom the Germans believe is the one who leaves gifts for children on Christmas Eve. And in Western countries, Monito Monita or Kris Kringle is also popularly known as Secret Santa.
The original Secret Santa was quite a different animal, though. The first Secret Santa came about in 1979, when American philanthropist Larry Stewart started anonymously giving away hundred-dollar bills to poor people on Christmas Day and on any other day of the year.
Stewart kept his identity a secret for 27 years, until he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2006. At that point, a newspaper had the idea that his story would make a good feature article, and they wanted to reveal his secret – so he decided to come out in public and tell his own story before the newspaper did.
Today, there is still a Secret Santa society that continues to do Stewart’s good work anonymously. At the same time, Stewart’s Secret Santa also inspired this game we call Secret Santa – or Kris Kringle, or Monito Monita – that lets people give trinkets to each other anonymously, for a little Christmas fun.
Noche Buena is the Spanish term for “good night,” and indeed, Noche Buena night is a good night for Filipinos, with all the Christmas cheer (and Christmas food!) it brings.
As its Spanish name suggests, this well-loved Filipino Christmas tradition is not uniquely ours. It is something we share with Spanish-speaking territories such as Cuba, Mexico, and of course, Spain. In all these countries, just like our own, Noche Buena is celebrated after the Christmas Eve mass. Everywhere that Noche Buena is found, you will also find an abundance of foods that are remarkably similar to ours: roast pig, hot soup, and desserts.
Of course, it is unlikely that these foreign tables also feature bibingka, fruit salad, macaroni salad, and Filipino-style spaghetti or pansit. Add to that the fireworks in the streets and the last-ditch carolers, and we’ll have what we can say is a uniquely Pinoy Noche Buena.
The parol is a star-shaped Christmas lantern that is traditionally hung in Filipino homes. And yes, it is completely Filipino.
Although the use of lanterns in holidays is an old practice in many countries, it was not common to make these lanterns star-shaped until the first five-pointed star-shaped lantern was made in 1928 by a man named Francisco Estanislao.
Estanislao’s lantern was made with colored papel de Hapon (Japanese paper) pasted on a star-shaped frame made from sticks of bamboo. The parols were designed so that they could be illuminated with a candle.
In olden days, the parol was used to light the way of the people walking very early in the morning to Misa de Gallo. The streets were dark because the mass was held before sunrise and electric lights were not available yet. Estanislao’s lanterns therefore, not only made the houses look more festive, but also helped prevent the early churchgoers from stumbling in the dark.
Today, Estanislao’s parol has come a long way. Nowadays, it is often made with capiz shells and features colored LED lights that “dance” to music. In certain parts of the Philippines, these parols can be several meters tall, and just one of them would be bright enough to light a whole street.
Two things haven’t changed, though: the star motif and the fact that these unique lanterns are still the Filipino’s favorite adornment for their homes and streets during the Christmas season.
It is undeniable that a lot of our Christmas celebration practices have foreign origins. And yet, we are able to make them very much our own. Our Noche Buena fare is composed of food that Filipinos love. When we go caroling, we sing Filipino songs – “Pasko Na Naman” and Levi Celerio’s “Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit” are inevitable parts of our repertoire. We sing the Panunuluyan in our own Philippine languages – Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilonggo, etc.
So even if we go to the countries where these customs originated from, they never feel the same. For the Filipino, nothing compares to spending Christmas in the Philippines.