The Spirit and Culture of Christmas in the Philippines

Christmas has only recently begun but unfortunately, many people, due to their wrong priorities, lose the Christmas feel once Christmas Day dinner tables are cleaned up. For many Filipinos, “Christmas” began in September, when bored housewives began raiding shopping malls for the “newest”, “glitteriest”, “shiniest” Christmas decor they could get their hands on. Material goods—whether for decorating or gift-giving—are purchased here and there until people stress themselves out with the most horrible road traffic, the unbearable long queues in shopping malls and the jacking up of prices. There are sales but mostly, the goods on reductions are ugly and old.

But this isn’t Christmas. This is absolutely not Christmas. Today’s world of consumerism, of “fast lanes”, of “Express gift wrapping counters” have truly and irreparably undermined and poisoned this generation’s celebration of Christmas. Jesus, for some years now, has been replaced by the fat not to mention drunk image of obese white-skinned Santa Claus (who is a bastardization of a Catholic saint, by the way), an advertising image associated with Hollywood’s Godless tradition. The belen, with the figures from the First Christmas, has been replaced by dwarfs, small houses and reindeer.

CHRISTmas is about Christ! It is about the God who became man, the Word who became flesh, the Child born to the humblest of people. It is about the sanctity of the Holy Family, the perseverance of Mary and Joseph despite rejection and pain, of dire need and desperation. Christmas was never about getting extremely drunk or extremely broke. Christmas was never about stressing about which Christmas tree to hang (“the green one or the white one?”) Christmas, IRONICALLY, was everything OPPOSITE we are all doing right now!

I remember stories of how the generation of our grandparents celebrated Noche Buena. The children are told to go to bed early while the elders are busy preparing the Noche Buena (after 12:00 am) meal, which consisted of jamon (I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT SOME ACTUALLY FRY HAM!), queso, chocolate, vino, cold embotido and cold galantina, potato salad, and numerous sweets. There was also pan or bread. Nothing excessive. At 12:00 midnight (25 December), families go not to the dining halls but first, to CHURCH! Yes, these days, Midnight Masses are held as early as 6:00 pm, and the latest ones at 11:00 pm “to accommodate the people”. Everything today is for our comfort (and to the priests’ too actually!). Going back, families walked to church and there heard the most cherished and most loved “villancicos” or Christmas carols as well as traditional Latin Christmas hymns such as Adeste Fideles and Hodie Christus Natus Est during and after Masses still celebrated in Latin (Luckily, the Ateneo de Manila High School still has Dr. Onofre Pagsanghan directing Dulaang Sibol’s Christmas repertoire that includes such hymns that really preserve Philippine Christmas music). After Mass, people buy their bibingka and puto bungbong, and in their homes, celebrate the birth of our Lord in the company of family.

I was told that these were all done in a sense of solemnity and true “Silent Night” peace. The joy of such celebrations were not muted but simply expressed in tempered actions and simple delights such as a grandchild reciting a poem or an uncle playing the piano or violin. None of what we see today on TV of drinking sprees, KARAOKE contests (GOD! HAVE MERCY!), and perverse games (games that make use of the eggplant!). Gifts too were opened not on the 25th but on 6 January, Feast of the Tres Reyes Magos (3 Kings), a very Spanish practice our grandparents adopted. Likewise, they didn’t hang stockings but placed shoes outside where the 3 Wise Men would place candies and other small goodies. SEE! It used to be very in-sync for both culture and religion. Now, things have truly gone haywire.

Culture and heritage can speak volumes of how Christmas then was truly celebrated and cherished by our grandparents. People bought/wore nice clothes (not necessarily expensive ones) for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day BECAUSE THEY KNEW IT WAS A VERY IMPORTANT PERSON’S BIRTHDAY. Not because they saw Christmas per se as an excuse or an occasion to simply splurge a year’s worth of salary. No. They wore their best clothes because when they WENT TO MASS (another thing being forgotten amidst the debauchery and excesses!) they wanted to present their best selves to Him. And they wore their best hats, their best dresses, their finest hand-embroidered handkerchiefs, their most elaborate veils and their most cherished Spanish fans not only to look nice but to LOOK APPROPRIATE.

Last night, during the Midnight Mass here at the Cathedral in Cubao, my Mama simply was unable to control herself and she just had to tell those noisy, texting, callous girls and boys to simply get out of the church if they didn’t go there to hear Mass. Damn, the young people these days who FILL CHURCHES and OCCUPY SPACES just to chit chat and text, and to flaunt the most inappropriate of dresses!

And then, there were the traditional dishes. Galantina, Lengua (Estofada or Con Champinon), Morcon, Embotido, Lechon, Queso de Bola and Jamon were just some of the most memorable dishes I associate with Christmas vice-versa my grandmother. But these dishes also spoke of how Christmas was valued then: these were very complicated, and demanding dishes that could only be whipped up by the most patient, and even, the most passionate people (WOMEN) one could ever think of: our mothers/grandmothers/aunts. They were really labors of love.

Now, we have the ketchup-red spaghetti, the hamburgers and pizzas and the ice creams flooding our Christmas tables not only fattening us extremely but filling our bodies with chemicals and our brains with “American dreams”. Along the way, as we have replaced Christ with Santa Claus and Leche Flan with Ice Cream, we have lost not only the Spirit of Christmas but also the Culture of Christmas. Today, even in our Catholic Churches, you could barely hear the traditional Spanish and Latin Christmas songs our grandparents in the Philippines used to sing with much ardor. Now, carolers sing Hollywood, “Pop” Christmas songs in a very boring way.

But, heck! It’s Christmas! Let’s just remember to be thankful, and celebrate we must though not excessively and not insensitively! At the end of the day, the question is whether we are perpetuating the scene of Mary and Joseph and Jesus being shut out as we party or if we will welcome them with open arms and open hearts. Though these are very telling signs of the crises in our culture, we trust and hope in our Good Redeemer, He who proved all darkness, confusion and evil wrong, that He may bring us back to the Light of His Father.




About hechoayer

Things made yesterday still influence us until today. Things made today will influence us tomorrow. Things of the essence such as faith, culture, food, music and values should never disappear nor eroded by the times. Instead, these must be recorded, lived and shared. Something made yesterday - hecho ayer - can be tomorrow's saving grace. Never ignore the past.
This entry was posted in COMIDA FILIPINA, CULTURA, LA VIDA FILIPINA and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Spirit and Culture of Christmas in the Philippines

  1. i was not able to greet you and all the others during Christmas but it’s never too late. Merry Christmas and happy new year, quins!

  2. and i think you’ll like this video.

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