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Beyond the lights: Unwrapping the Filipino Christmas spirit

You step out of the church and it all hits you. The bright lights—red, green, and yellow—twinkle around the windows of every house. Some are slowly fading in and out, some seem like they are dancing to the tambourines and the choir singing Joy to the World, echoing from inside. The midnight air embraces you, making goosebumps appear on your arms. You walk to the streets only to feel the warmth coming from the coal stoves hiding behind the long line in front of you. You smell burnt coconut milk and butter and you know exactly why—puto bumbong and bibingka are sold right across the street. You smile as you fall in line to get some for you and your family. Christmas is alive tonight.


This is the epitome of a Filipino Christmas scenery. It encapsulates the surface of the season’s Filipino tradition, including Misa de Gallo with the family, the peak of cold weather in the tropical country, classical Christmas tunes, and food. While these are enough for sheer excitement and festive fun, the Filipino touch in the Christmas spirit offers much more than that. It goes deeper than the surface.


The ideal Christmas vacation


Christmas often carries positive, daydreamy associations.  Infinite loops of cheerful holiday music, dangling holiday lights and endless Santa Claus merchandise are nothing short of literal reminders that, once more, it’s that time of the year when families are huddled in a dining room, surrounded by the glow of fluorescent light bulbs and ecstatic about the bounty atop their table.


Elsewhere in other parts of the city, families are gathered around tables, basking in the festive mood of the season; but this common tableau of a complete family’s jolly Noche Buena is not a common denominator shared by all. While the Christmas spirit is in full swing in some households, it’s not all cheer and glitters for the others.  


“[I wish] to spend Christmas with both my mom and dad kasi my mom is not [usually] here for Christmas,” laments Chlarise Lagamayo (II, PSM-ADV). “She just goes here once every two years.”


In a season-long marathon of shopping for gifts, hanging ornaments and singing anthems of the holiday, it’s not just the festivities that keep the Christmas tale going—it offers the template of most gripping narratives: The family.  Whether it’s in a backdrop of a North Pole-esque village or the typical Filipino barrio, the Yuletide season stirs a nostalgic longing for the warmth of home.


“Christmas is an important opportunity to reunite and foster stronger ties with the family. It’s also a chance to reconnect, get closer, and catch up with relatives and friends,” comments Alissa Joyce Sebastian (II, CHY).


Christmas is often subject to cheerier perspectives, but there’s still a lingering sense of ennui which underlines the Filipinos’ close attachment with the family. “If I were to picture an ideal Christmas vacation, it’s just something as simple as celebrating it with them.  I don’t care where, it matters to me as long as we’re together,” shares Denise Garcia (II, IS-JPS).


filipino christmas_sheela mui


Of nativities and commodities


Others view it as a religious holiday. Some simplify it as a commercial ritual.  There are families who view it as a time of togetherness and love, and then there are those who see it as nothing more than a traditional cliché. It is a chore that needs to be accomplished. A list of tasks to do—decorating the Christmas tree, buying gifts, listing down all the inaanaks, and receiving bonuses.

“I think Filipinos usually think Christmas is the time to get money or the time to get their extra bonus pay.” Laren Sanchez (II, PSM) notices.


And then there are those who stick to the origin of the holiday—the birth of Jesus Christ. It is celebrated through attending simbang gabi. Colorful lights outline the doorways of several Catholic churches, signaling the perennial nine-day mass. Choristers sing of holiday cheer and a couple of heads bow in prayer.  In the rows of occupied pews, there are some muttering their wishes in hushed tones while others whisper their thank you’s for another year and another Christmas to celebrate.

“I think that a lot of people are forgetting the real essence of Christmas,” remarks Maria Geninna Velasco (II, CHY). “There are times when the reason for celebrating is outweighed by the heavier importance that people place on giving and receiving gifts.”


Kristiana Neri (II, PSM), on the other hand, believes that amid the typical Filipino celebration every Christmas, we still remember what it is about. “I think the main focus of Christmas for the Filipino people is getting together but at the same time, it’s getting together with God in mind.” she observes.


It is easy to get lost in the sea of reds and greens; Christmas is a celebration that has grown in different shapes and angles. Whether it is still about religion or not is a question that receives different answers yet, despite this, it is still a holiday that everybody welcomes with enthusiasm and unadulterated joy.


The essence of gift-giving


It is better to give than to receive. This is a proverb we hear every Christmas. As children, it was often shrugged off or forgotten. All we wanted was the prettiest Barbie doll or the newest video game. As we grow older, we then find the meaning this saying conveys: there are things greater than Barbie dolls or video games.


Don Torreda (I, OCM) does not remember the gifts he received during Christmas. Instead, he remembers a fond memory of his family’s Christmas Eve celebration from two to three years ago.

“Our family wanted to do something different for Christmas. So what we did was get, like, ten kilos of rice and meat, cooked it, then on Christmas Eve, we went out to Roxas Boulevard and gave the food to tricycle drivers and those who worked during the holidays,” he recalls. “It was special for me because I didn’t really feel good about receiving gifts, so it felt really nice to be able to give back on Christmas—and I think that’s what the spirit of Christmas is supposed to be.”


When good deeds and lists of gifts to buy replace long, materialistic Christmas wish lists, Christmas becomes a celebration of selflessness. No longer do people go to bed and wish for their stockings to be filled with gifts from Santa.  

“When I think of Christmas, I don’t see it as something selfish,” Franz Tacogdoy (II, ENT) muses. “I see it as something that’s meant to remind us to think of others above ourselves. If I’ll make a wish for Christmas, it’ll be something for others, not just for me.”


The Christmas season conjures up visions, not only of the kris-kringle tradition or a bountiful table in Noche Buena; in its core, beyond the cheery twinkle of Christmas lights, the wide grin of Santa Claus peeking through store windows, or even the smell of the local puto bumbong wafting in the air, the holiday represents many of the fundamental attributes closely embedded to the Filipino culture.


“A reason why Christmas is so close to the hearts of many is because it stands as a culmination of Filipinos’ core values,” Zeanne Garcia (II, OCM) shares. “It’s a simple holiday to some, but for others, it’s the season that they get to show their generosity, their love for family, enjoy festivities, indulge in food and music—things that are undeniably Filipino.”


Christmas is a cherished, and even an awaited, holiday to many locals. Celebrated with fanfare and zeal, the pull behind its appeal is driven by something bigger than the charm of Santa hats, shopping, and reindeer displays. It’s not simply the holiday rush or the mini-sized pine trees but an appropriately symbolic representation of traits that are proudly, truly, and inherently Filipino.


By Danielle Arcon

By Casey Margaret Eridio

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