The Christmas season in the Philippines begins on the first day of September and does not end until the first week of January. Filipinos love celebrating the Yuletide season. To them, Christmas is not only about the birth of Jesus Christ and Santa Claus visiting houses at midnight to leave gifts for girls and boys. It’s about getting together with one’s family and friends, helping each other, forgiving one another, and sharing one’s blessings with others who don’t have much.
What is a Filipino Parol?
A parol is a star-shaped Christmas lantern from the Philippines. It’s traditionally made of bamboo and colored paper. It symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Three Kings to the baby Jesus born in a manger in Jerusalem. It’s also a symbol of hope and goodwill among Filipinos during Christmas.
The history of the parol traces its beginnings to the time when the Philippines was under Spanish rule:
The word parol (pronounced “pah-roll” with a rolling “r”) comes from the Spanish word for lantern, farol. According to World Book’s Christmas in the Philippines, the roots of the parol can be found in the Mexican piñata. The piñata came to Spain from Italy in the 1300’s, spread to Mexico and finally came to the Philippines when the Spaniards brought Christianity to the islands.
The book A Child’s Pasko: Christmas in the Philippines explains that the parol was originally used to light the way to church to attend the daily Misas de Aguinaldo, or Gift Masses, which begin on the 16th of December, and ends with the Misa de Gallo, or “Mass of the Rooster” at midnight of Christmas eve. The midnight mass is followed by a usually lavish meal at home, which is always anticipated by the kids. The first Misa de Aguinaldo that is held at dawn on December 16th marks the official start of the Christmas season.
Nine Days of Christmas Masses
The daily Misas de Aguinaldo or Simbang Gabi begins on the 16th of December and is held for nine days straight. These early morning masses usually happen before dawn breaks. The Filipinas Heritage Library describes Simbang Gabi in the following text:
For nine days before the Nativity, children and adults alike wake up very early to hear mass at four or five in the morning as a spiritual preparation for the commemoration of the Savior’s birth. As Alejandro R. Roces describes:
In the rural areas, an hour or so before the Mass, a band plays “Ang Pasko ay Sumapit,” traditional villancicos, and carols all over town. In some communities, the parish priest goes as far as banging on each and every door. The whole town is up for the Misa de Aguinaldo.
After Simbang Gabi, Filipinos usually drop by kiosks selling puto bumbong and bibingka on their way home. Traditionally, people enjoy these native delicacies with a cup of tsokolate de batirol or salabat, but these drinks are rarely consumed these days. A cup of coffee or hot chocolate is much preferred by the younger generation.
Noche Buena, Midnight Mass, and Gift-Giving
Like everyone else, Filipinos love to give gifts and to receive them in return. But before the appointed time of gift-giving, families eat together first for Noche Buena, a Christmas Eve tradition commonly celebrated by Spanish-influenced cultures like the Philippines, Mexico, and Puerto Rico.
The largest Christmastime feast in many Hispanic households, Nochebuena dinner often features roast pork, known as lechón in Spanish, as the centerpiece of the meal. Food is perhaps the most important part of Noche Buena, and alcohol is typically consumed by all over the course of the celebration.
In the Philippines, this celebration includes drinking liquor and singing some videoke songs. At 10 or 11 in the evening, the family prepares to attend the Midnight Mass. In many provinces, people re-enact the arduous journey of Mary and Joseph as they looked for a place to stay in Bethlehem. This re-enactment ends with Mary giving birth to the infant Jesus and presenting him to the shepherds and the Three Kings.
Mano Po and Ang Pao
Although the Philippines is mainly influenced by the Spanish, many Filipino traditions came from the Chinese. One of those traditions is the gifting of envelopes filled with money (banknotes) to one’s grandchildren, nephews and nieces, and godchildren. Many Chinoys (Chinese-Filipinos) use Ang Pao, red envelopes that contain money. They’re given away as gifts in weddings, birthdays, and other special occasions.
The children pay their respects to their elders by saying “mano po” and bowing their heads:
It is a very common scene among Filipinos; if a person who is older enters a room, people who are younger must grab their right hand and place the back of the fingers against their foreheads. This is a sign of respect. The ‘mano po’ has been a standard fixture in Filipino families and polite society for a very long time.
If you have Filipino staff, bear in mind that they’ll need a few hours on Christmas Eve to spend with their family and friends. Being there is already a precious gift for many Filipinos. Nurses and doctors, police personnel, and emergency responders don’t have time to rest during Christmas and most especially on New Year’s Eve. Many people are drunk and more accidents occur. Filipinos also like to light up the sky with fireworks frequently during the holidays.