Nila Eslit is a freelance writer, editor, book reviewer, and environmentalist.
Commercialization Is the Root Cause of the Celebration
It’s the BER months once again! (BER refers to the last four months of the year - SeptemBER, OctoBER, NovemBER, and DecemBER). What does this mean to Filipinos? It’s Christmas season! Time for endless parties, shopping, and celebration!
Christmas in the Philippines starts at the beginning of the BER months. As soon as September 1st arrives, many Filipinos start decorating their houses with Christmas-themed items including conifer trees, wreaths, glittering balls, Santa Claus memorabilia, reindeer, and other similar stuff. Curtains and throw pillows also have Christmas designs. Likewise, you can expect to hear Christmas songs on the radio, in the malls, in many houses, and in every other establishment in the Philippines. TV programs also include Christmas content.
Why So Early?
First, let me explain the culture. Filipinos are family-centric. Even if some members move away from the family home for reasons like work, marriage, or school, they make sure to come back to their hometown, or to the “mother house” on special occasions. And, since 85% of Filipinos are Christians, they consider Christmas the most important special occasion for families to get together.
At their hometown, family members eagerly prepare for the return of their loved ones. They set a festive atmosphere in and around the house and in the immediate community by putting up decorations and gathering ingredients for the special foods that they’re going to prepare for when their loved ones arrive.
Driven by their eagerness to celebrate Christmas, they want to create a “Christmassy” atmosphere to show off to the arriving family members. Besides, there’s that subconscious desire to flaunt (to their neighbors) that they’re first to adorn their homes with new Christmas decors. [Many Filipinos would react to this, I know].
Meanwhile, those loved ones who are coming back home make sure to bring tokens or pasalubong for almost everyone. Pasalubong means gifts or souvenir items usually given by one arriving from a trip. It’s a unique trait of Filipinos, which means they always remember their loved ones and dear friends even if they’re far away. As a gesture of their fondness, they give them pasalubong. Aside from pasalubong, they also bring along additional Christmas decorations for their homes. Most often than not, those coming from the Western countries would bring Western representation of Christmas like Santa Claus, reindeer, and other stuff.
Materialism and Commercialism vs. Spirituality
The influx of balikbayan means money. Balikbayan refers to Filipinos returning to the Philippines after having stayed abroad for an extended period. Usually, these people start arriving at their respective hometowns weeks or months before Christmas. It is expected that balikbayans have extra money to spend on Christmas shopping with their loved ones.
And, here is where businessmen come in. Taking the opportunity to get a share of the balikbayan money, they sell all sorts of stuff that have “something to do with Christmas,” creating a need for every shopper. For them, the last quarter of the year is their ultimate chance of raking up huge profits. So they hype up the season as the “time of giving” (and buying!). Radio stations start playing Christmas songs and television networks dress up their sets with something “Christmassy”. Shopping centers display all kinds of commercial items.
In all fairness, we cannot put the blame solely on the businessmen altogether, though. Materialism has also consumed many people. Much of the blame for the extended Christmas season falls on the consumers themselves. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the desire to flaunt their new items is very much alive in many Filipinos’ minds. And, the pride to be the first to put up their Christmas decors seems to be an achievement of something only they know!
Indeed, Christmas in the Philippines has become so commercialized that it looks like a new religion, where Santa Claus replaces Jesus at the center of Christmas. Ask any millennial and the younger generation about their concept of Christmas. Almost unanimously, their answer is a party, binge eating, and drinking. Funny how Santa Claus, reindeer, fancy snowflakes, and plastic conifer trees become the most attractive and most saleable Christmas items compared to the parol (lantern) and the Nativity Scene.
The Traditional Christmas for Christian Filipinos
Thankfully, though, all is not lost to commercialization. And, it must be God's grace!
Despite the commercialization of Christmas and the materialism it creates, many Christians in the country still hold on to tradition. For Catholics, preparation for Christmas starts with Advent or the period of four Sundays and weeks before Christmas Day. Advent literally means “Coming” in Latin, referring to the coming of Jesus into the world. The Advent period is the traditional time for spiritual preparation for and contemplation of Christ as Savior.
In addition to this preparation, Catholics observe the Simbang Gabi (Night Mass in English). It’s a nine-day Novena Mass that starts on December 16 and culminates on December 24. It is performed in reverence to the Blessed Virgin Mary as she awaited the birth of Jesus. The Novena Mass stems from the Advent liturgy, where Christian believers spiritually prepare themselves for the coming of Jesus. Simbang Gabi is actually held around 4 o’clock in the morning, and not at night. Its history dates back to the later part of the 17th century.
In the Philippines, the Christmas season falls during the harvest period, and it's customary for our ancestors to hold Thanksgiving prayers in the evenings. But since the farmers would have been too tired from the day’s work to participate in the novena prayers, the friars at the time decided to move the Mass at dawn, so the farmers would not miss hearing the Word of God before going to their farms.
Today, Simbang Gabi is still very much alive. Almost all churches in the country are filled with people all throughout the nine-day novena Mass. But, the first and last days are the fullest, though. After its culmination on the dawn of December 24, parishioners go back to Church on Christmas Eve to participate in the Misa de Gallo, or the Mass of the Gifts. This is performed a few hours before the clock strikes 12 o’clock midnight ushering Christmas Day.
After the Mass, families get together at their respective homes for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner called Noche Buena. Usually, the dinner consists of a variety of foods and local delicacies. The amount of food served depends on the economic status of the family, though. But regardless of a family’s situation, the bonding moment and the time for catching up with one another is what matters the most.
For those who are not trapped in the commercialization of Christmas, home decorations usually consist of the Nativity Scene or an altar of the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. A parol is also a prominent sight. Parol literally means lantern. Its history dates back to the Spanish period in the Philippines. The parol was used to light the parishioners’ way as they walked to church for the dawn Masses. Today, although the present generation enjoys electric power to light their way to church, the parol is still an important Christmas symbol in the homes of the faithful.
And of course, the faithful of today do not greet each other with Merry X’mas, Season’s Greetings, or Happy Holidays. Instead, we say “Merry Christmas” because, for us, Christ is the center of the celebration.