Long live the many unique traditions of the Yuletide season in the Philippines
It might be a quieter Christmas, but it’ll be Christmas just the same. It has been Christmas since September in the Philippines, pandemic or not. Although many of the city centers have been on lockdown since March, the longest Christmas season that the country is known for in all the world began in earnest as soon the first Christmas carols were played in public places, like convenience stores or public parks or even the semi-empty malls, partially opened to keep the economy going.
In Pampanga, it’s been announced that the annual Grand Lantern Festival, locally known as Ligligan Parul, a lantern display and parol-making competition, has not been canceled, although there won’t be any mass gathering and much of the event will take place online in keeping with quarantine protocols.
In Ilocos Sur, a giant Christmas tree has been lit in Vigan City, just a week or two after it opened up to domestic tourists. If you’d like a taste of Christmas unique to Ilocos Sur and even to other parts of northern Luzon like Cagayan, why don’t you try the tinubong? It’s the region’s version of the Christmas cake. Made of ground glutinous rice, brown or white sugar, and kakanggata or coconut milk, mixed with ground peanuts or cacao or anise and cooked in two-feet-long cylinders of green bamboo, it is to Ilocos Sur what puto bumbong is to Central Luzon. Sadly, as a result of modernization and globalization, it is also endangered. But after months in quarantine, during which there has been a resurgence of appreciation for local, homegrown things, it is possible that a lot of Ilocano families might have tinubong on their Christmas menu this year.
Just as endangered is the Christmas custom of panunuluyan. A reenactment of the ordeal of Joseph and Mary going from house to house in search of a place in which Mary could give birth to the Christ child, it is a procession held on Christmas Eve in places like Malolos, Bulacan, replete with choir boys singing solemn hymns and bearing crosses and candles and the santos representing the Holy Family. In recent years, instead of statues, real people would play Mary and Joseph, usually appointed by the city council or respected citizens of the town and, like Joseph and Mary, they would knock on every door, begging for shelter, only to end up in a stable full of farm animals, possibly with a giant parol hanging overhead like the star of Bethlehem. In Kawit, Cavite, a similar tradition is called Maytinis, a derivative of matins from Latin matutinus or evening prayer.
There are many other folksy Christmas traditions still prevalent in modern Philippines, such as the pahalik, in which, in some places like Laguna, a treasured image of the Holy Infant is brought out during midnight mass and passed around for the faithful to kiss. There’s also the Pastores in the Bicol Region where, reenacting the jubilation over the birth of Christ, young boys and girls dress as shepherd and sing and dance to “Pastores a Belen,” a song that has always been rumored to have been composed by the Philippine National Hero Jose Rizal while he was in exile in Dapitan. It’s a music festival of sorts, with the young folk playing string and percussive instruments throughout the night. Of course, we all know about aguinaldo or the giving of presents during holiday visits to each other and monito-monita, a form of gift exchange, usually practiced among families, officemates, schoolmates, and friends, in which everyone involved in the game plays secret Santa to someone picked off a draw and sends anonymous gifts, sometimes every day in December until the Christmas party or sometimes only on the 12 days of Christmas.
If you’d like a taste of Christmas unique to Ilocos Sur and even to other parts of northern Luzon like Cagayan, why don’t you try the tinubong?
Filipinos do go out on a limb to celebrate Christmas. Last year in Pototan, Iloilo, known for its Iwag Festival, a festival of lights, iwag meaning light, all notable buildings and even houses big and small were transformed into giant gifts last year, replete with bows and ribbons all ablaze, which made the whole town look like what would traditionally be found at the foot of a Christmas tree.
But there is no tradition more special and unique to each Filipino family than the preparations of the Noche Buena on Christmas Eve, which usually starts early in the morning of the day before Christmas with pots and pans banging in the kitchen, knives cutting through meats, pestles grinding, crushing, pounding ingredients in the mortar, steam whistling out of the pressure cooker, ice squealing from the blender, often accompanied by carols on the radio or the stereo or MTV or, lately, Spotify and a lot of excited laughter. There is nothing like waking up in the morning on Dec. 24 to the smell of something special or nostalgic or pleasurable wafting from kitchen.
To the Filipino, Christmas is about making each other happy, and not just the children, through rituals, through prayer, through food, through gifts, through songs and dance, through the most heartfelt wishes. It truly is the most wonderful time of the year.