In the Philippines, Christmas is a multi-month affair, lasting the duration of the “Ber” months from September to January. Starting on September 1st, Filipino households set up their Belén, or a nativity scene, hang up paról, a Christmas ornament unique to the Philippines, and radio stations begin playing Christmas carols. It is a time of celebration when parades, parties, and concerts crowd calendars.
Unlike the long run-up to Christmas in the United States, such as Black Friday, which often stems from commercialization, in the Philippines it grew organically from Filipino culture. For Filipinos, Ber is the celebration of family, faith, fiesta, friends, and fun. The commercialization of this season came later, and the key tenets are still the primary focus. The Philippines has a long history of Fiestas that happen the whole year, so it is not a surprise the country goes all out for the most important one of the year.
Faith forms an intrinsic part of the celebration, which makes Christmas such an essential part of Filipino culture. Over 90% of Filipinos are Christian and 86% of Christians identify as Roman Catholic. The high proportion of Filipino Christians and Roman Catholics comes from the country’s period as a Spanish colony from the sixteenth century until the end of the nineteenth. Filipinos attend several masses throughout the Christmas season. The longest and most important one being Simbang Gabi (Dawn Mass), celebrated by Filipino Christians for the past five centuries. It is held over nine consecutive days from December 16-24. On the last day of Simbang Gabi, the service is instead called Misa de Gallo which is Spanish for Rooster’s Mass. Afterwards, families gather outside to eat bibingka and puto bumbong
On Christmas Eve the ultimate Christmas celebration is held: Noche Buena or “Midnight Fest.” It is a huge celebration where families, friends, and neighbors come together to eat food made for the Christmas season. Dishes include roasted pig, keso de bola, kare-kare, spring rolls, various types of noodle dishes, and buko salads for dessert. Afterwards, families open presents together and children receive Aguinaldo, cash from their relatives and godparents.
Even Filipinos living abroad prepare for a traditional Filipino Christmas. In 2019, over 12 million Filipinos worked overseas. The United States is home to the largest number of Filipino residents outside of the Philippines, about 4 million. Filipino Americans, constitute the third largest Asian American population. Many Filipino Americans send out tax-free balikbayan boxes in September, so families can receive them by Christmas in December. They hang parol, make traditional dishes on Christmas Eve, and participate in an Americanized version of Simbang Gabi. Even though they are far from home, they can still connect with their culture through the holidays.
Shannon Wells is a participant of the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a first-year Master's of International Studies student at North Carolina State University.