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Tracing the Historical Journey of the Filipino Christmas

Titilaok Dec 01,2013 0 Comments

Many claim that among all the countries in the world that celebrate Christmas, the Philippines has the most unique and gleeful one. It is not a surprising statement. Filipinos, after all, start wearing the Yuletide hat as early as September –they begin putting up the Christmas lights, setting up the Christmas decors, and some even start playing their favorite Christmas tunes.

It is important to note that studying the Filipino Christmas experience is a rich platform to examine the society’s culture and history. From the Parols, Belen, and Noche Buena, to the Simbang Gabi, Aguinaldos, and Christmas songs, the icons of Filipino Christmas are concrete testaments to the journey the country has gone throughout history.

Religious Assimilation

It was our Spanish colonizers who introduced Christmas in the Philippines through Christianity. No, not that time when Ferdinand Magellan and his fellow explorers reached the shores of Cebu and celebrated the first mass in 1521. It wasn’t a successful Christian assimilation effort because, well, most of them died in Mactan. However, Spaniards returned in 1565 and that’s when the colonization started to take off. Along with their intent to conquer the land, there was the intention to spread Christianity as well. That’s when Christmas began in the Philippines.

A huge chunk of the way we celebrate Christmas is a remnant of the Spanish rule in the country. In his essay “How Filipinos Reinvented Christmas”, Bobby Reyes shares how the Spanish rule started some of the traditions that Filipinos do during the Yuletide season. Among the ones discussed in the essay are Simbang Gabi, Noche Buena, and the giving of Aguinaldos (gifts).

Simbang Gabi started out as a nine-day novena prior to Christmas day in an effort by the Spanish clergy in the country to pay tribute to Pope Sixtus V.

Simbang Gabi started out as a nine-day novena prior to Christmas day in an effort by the Spanish clergy in the country to pay tribute to Pope Sixtus V.

According to the essay, Simbang Gabi started out as a nine-day novena prior to Christmas day in an effort by the Spanish clergy in the country to pay tribute to Pope Sixtus V. How it went on to become an early morning mass that starts on December 16 is unclear although a popular story claims that the reason for the early morning mass was to allow farmers to go to mass prior to their tasks at the farm.

Filipinos also began practicing Noche Buena during the Spanish colonization. Back then, Filipino families served a wide array of delicacies from other countries. Same as the way we hold our Noche Buenas today, it was conducted on the night of December 24 as well.

The widespread practice of gift-giving (Aguinaldo) was also from
the influence of the colonial Spanish regime. But there’s a rather interesting twist on how it was done back then. While godchildren visit the godparents on Christmas for their gifts, much like the way we do it now, there is an evident sense of reciprocity as godchildren also give gifts to their godparents when they grow up and start earning their own money. Now, don’t we wish this were still applicable now?

Another Christmas icon here in the Philippines is the ubiquitous parol. The World Book’s Christmas in the Philippines discusses that the origins of the parol can be traced back to the Mexican Piñata, which originated in Spain. It is interesting to note that while it was Spain that brought the parol to the Philippine shores, the original concept of the parol came from Italy.

Further Colonization

When the Americans took over the Philippines, a number of their influences managed to trickle down to our modern experience.

The Christmas tree that competes with the parol in its ubiquity was introduced to the Philippines by Americans. However, the practice of having Christmas trees originated in Germany as evidenced by Jose Rizal’s letter to his eldest sister Saturnina when he was in the aforementioned European state. In an article entitled “The First Christmas Tree in the Philippines”, Filipino historian Ambeth Ocampo shares a portion of the letter that goes, “On Christmas Eve they bring from the forest a pine tree… It is decorated with tinsel, paper, lights, dolls, candy, fruits, dainties, etc., and at night time, it is shown to the children (who should see the preparation of it), and around this tree the family celebrates Christmas.”

Furthermore, Bobby Reyes also shares that it was during the American rule when the tradition of card-giving during the Yuletide season started. Evidently, this continues to be strong here in the country given the number of Hallmark cards that occupy our bookstores’ shelves.

Of course, no lengthy discussion is necessary to point out the long list of Christmas songs that many Filipinos sing during the holidays.

The Christmas We Know

Much like many of the cultural artifacts and experiences in the Philippines, our version of Christmas has become a concrete testament to the kaleidoscopic influences of our past. Until today, we retain the way certain traditions are exercised — from the widespread usage of the parol, the Christmas tree, Noche Buena, and the Aguinaldo. Although I’m pretty certain that many among us are wishing that we managed to retain the reciprocity of gift-giving to godsons. And while there are a number of uniquely Filipino icons such as our Christmas songs and the kakanins, we remain to be a product of our history.

In the end, the differentiating factor of the Filipino Christmas is the people. The sheer enthusiasm and glee of Filipinos during Christmas is enough to make the experience different. After all, the Philippines celebrates Christmas the longest in the world. By the time September arrives all the way to the feast of Three Kings in January, Filipinos are still in on a Yuletide high. People’s socio-economic status is irrelevant. Because more often than not, we can remove all the icons of Christmas in our celebrations, but we will remain to be joyous nonetheless.

Words by: Francis Christian Lubag

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