In the spirit of Christmas

by Ronnie Hoyle

CHRISTMAS celebrations in the Philippines are said to be the longest in the world and are steadily getting longer...they now seem to begin somewhere in the middle of October when Christmas songs and carols start being played on radio and in some supermarkets, but usually people wait until after they have celebrated All Souls Day on November 1.

After that, stores all over the country start putting up their Christmas decorations and trying to lure customers.

Officially, Christmas does not start until December 16, according to the church calendar, but not only does Christmas start early, it continues for longer...until way past the New Year and seems to continue into February in some places: some commercial Christmas competitions and promotions have even been extended to Easter before the prizes have been given out!

The celebrations officially begin in the flower-decked church with the nine days novena, the prayer period called Misa de Gallo, or Cock’s Mass, when the religiously devoted are expected to wake up with the first cockerel call and head for church and the dawn vigil: it continues until Christmas Eve when they are also expected to return to church for the Midnight Mass celebrating the birth of Jesus.

On the first day, church bells ring at cock-crow, brass and string bands may play and sometimes fireworks are set off, although the biggest display is kept back for December 30 (Rizal Day) and New Year’s Eve and the start of the next year’s holidays on January 1, but fireworks - especially ‘bangers’ - explode every day for the whole of December and into January, causing some deaths and a great deal of injury to hands and faces.

Province-wide on Cebu Island during December (on different dates in different parts of the island) are the Paskuhan festivities, which include songs and parades of colourful Chinese-style lanterns.

From December 16 onwards, children start touring the streets and the resorts every night with anything that makes a sound like a drum and begin their chanting-style carol-singing: expect one group after another to turn up in rotation looking for their Christmas present or a few coins and candies with the same song: “We wish you a Merry Christmas…” for the next few weeks, followed by many adults doing the same thing.

The singing continues until after Christmas, except that the words change to: “We wish you a Happy New Year…” well into the New Year itself with children hoping to collect a few more pesos or leftover centavos before the festive season ends.

Like America and most of Europe, the biggest day is actually Christmas Eve when the family feast is held: presents are usually given on December 27 when the Bible says the Three Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem to offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus.

Fruit, like oranges, apples, pears or grapes are welcome as gifts since it ties in with the tradition of eating twelve different round fruits during the twelve days of Christmas, and most Filipinos cannot afford ’exotic’ fruits which are imported. But as one Filipino scholar has noted: “Actually, it makes no difference when you give a gift to a Filipino: it will be acceptable at any time. But do not expect a gift in return...Filipinos like the idea of receiving gifts, but are not accustomed to giving them as they do not usually have money to spare.”

Instead, they are more likely to show their generosity and their appreciation by inviting you into their home and asking you to share their food and hospitality, since what money and material possessions they have are usually limited and directed towards the improvement and welfare of their immediate family.

This applies particularly in the provinces and the countryside where opportunities for gainful employment are far fewer and less rewarding in agriculture and fishing.

Again, officially, Christmas ends on January 6, but for people in Loboc, Bohol, they like it so much that they keep the festivities going until February 2 and call it the ‘Suroy sa Musikero:’ this is the day when the town musicians are assigned to cover every area of the settlement where they eat the food served by their hosts and play and sing to the tune of ‘Kuradang’ or ‘Datga sa Baybayon.’