You think Christmas in the Philippines is all celebration? Think again. Its a lot more than what you really think. The Holidays is a tough season. May not look so for everyone, and many wouldn't really mind. Perhaps because its a time when everyone thinks of happy thoughts, feeling good about everything around and when everybody is "nicer." All I could think of is the word "magical" in this context. Why people feel good? Maybe that's really the miracle.
But no matter how magical things may be, you may need to read on for some challenges that lay ahead. Here's a guide how to survive a Filipino Christmas...at home.
Decorations. This is the first of the many things you have to take care of during the season. As early as the entrance of the "-ber" months (September-December), it is acceptable to put up Christmas decorations already. It is during these months that Christmas items are being put up on sale. Go around Divisoria towards the end of September, you won't miss the decorations peddled.
But there is an unspoken rule being followed in the Filipino Culture that most homes would put up decorations right after "Undas" in respect to the dead. You would notice that after the feasts, houses start to come alive with Christmas lights, parols, and other decorations. The grooming of the house for Christmas isn't a waste because the Philippines celebrate Christmas until January. Sometimes, the decors stay up until next year when people get lazy of taking it down.
Carollers. You have got to be ready for them. They're out to sing songs and wish you a Merry Christmas for a few loose change. Beautiful isn't it? Children go house to house singing along makeshift drums and tamborines. Sometimes their chorus of voices sounds much better and fit for the season than those who sing really well. After all, the season of Christmas is felt more by the children.
Don't drive them away. Have plenty of coins in the house, or maybe some candies instead of money. My family always have something ready to give away and its always a pleasure hearing their thanks in a song "teenk-yu! teeeeenk-yu! ambabait ninyo, tenk-yu!"
Namamasko. Its a short way of asking for a gift from Ninongs and Ninangs. Parents and children would visit their godparents and/or grandparents for their gifts. Because we are very responsible and very close to our inaanak, instead of giving them gifts like puzzles, building blocks, art materials and other brain stimulating stuff, we give them cash instead.
When I was young, I used to wonder why so many of my relatives instead of giving gift wrapped stuff, they hand over crisp bills that smell really good. It really is no problem with me, its the best thing to get during Christmas. I can get whatever I want. Practical right? And it saves paper because there's no need for wrappers. If you're thinking of handing cash, exchange your bills at the banks for smaller and newer ones.
Household Bills. This is something that really gets overlooked during the Christmas season. Everyone isn't really mindful but it is during the Holidays that the highest consumption of everything occurs, including household bills. Electricity, phone, and others significantly shoots up. The only thing that doesn't get a very high marginal difference is the water bills, because its cold and people are avoiding the showers.
You can help conserve energy and money by being mindful. Start by turning off lights and decors when its late already. Stop using air-conditioning, its cold already. Go figure out what else you can do.
Noche Buena. This is the peak of the Christmas in the Philippines. For us Filipinos, it is the height of all celebrations of the year. On the eve of Christmas, the family will gather together at the table to enjoy a feast. Gathering the family alone is quite a challenge already, what more the other things to do for a great Noche Buena.
The kitchen will be busy the whole day. Plan the menu ahead and buy in advance less perishable items. Purchase only what is needed fresh on the day of Christmas eve as prices of everything that can be bought shoots up. Fruits, meats, vegetables and others become expensive. On top of all these things, almost everyone is doing last minute shopping so if you're agoraphobic, its not a good idea to be at a market or supermarket before Noche Buena.
Christmas season is very festive here in the Philippines. Surviving a Filipino Christmas at home is just a fraction of what else goes on outside.
When its Christmas time in the Philippines, it is an adventure to go out. In the center of cities when its night rush hour, you get the hustle of people and the bright lights all around. Go sub-urban, the peaceful flickering of Christmas lights and parols mesmerize anyone passing by.
Misa de Gallo. Also known as "Simbang Gabi," this age old tradition is a 9-day Novena mass in anticipation of Christmas Day. Some churches celebrate mass during evenings, but most still do it traditionally before dawn. Surprisingly, many would still flock the churches as Christmas vacation had already begun. Tips? All you need is an alarm clock to help you wake up, toothbrush and toothpaste so your companions will sit with you and a few cousins or friends who'd force you out of bed.
It has been said that if one completes the 9 days masses, you'd get what you've been wishing for. Honestly, I've never completed 9 days, so I cannot tell if you if that is true. But one thing I know is true. Breakfast after simbang gabi is really awesome.
Christmas Food. Start off with food outside churches after Misa de Gallo. You won't have trouble finding the vendors. Look where people flock, you will find bibinka and puto-bumbong. They're a stand out among others during the holiday season and they make a superb breakfast, especially if traditionally made. Bibingka is traditionally made from rice flour, baked in a pottery and banana leaves by heating on the bottom and the top. Puto-bumbong on the other hand, is sticky purple-ish rice flour steamed in bamboo tubes and eaten with "kinudkod na niyog" and muscovado. Both are blockbusters and very affordable. Match them with tsokolate drink or salabat, you got yourself an after-simbang-gabi-breakfast traditional style.
I haven't forgotten about castanas or chestnuts. You know Christmas is near when these brown nuggets are being cooked in huge pans half filled with small pebbles for an even roast. Why is it so? Perhaps because it is not available all year round or maybe its too expensive and its only in Christmas that we have spare money for such treats. On my opinion, it doesn't have too much difference in taste versus kamote. The castanas is just firmer and chewier than kamote because the latter just melts in your mouth. So why spend for something expensive? People would. Because being seen eating kamote makes you look poor, being seen eating castanas means you have lots of money.
Christmas Sale. If you've seen castanas being cooked, chances are you're in a public place and a bigger chance you're near a mall. Many Filipinos flock to the malls during the Christmas season (don't we always go regardless of the season?). There's a shop till you drop syndrome every December because of fat paychecks that happens only once a year for a lot of Pinoys. Never get caught up with this fever and don't be mislead. By all means do your Christmas shopping for gifts earlier than the 2nd week of December. It will save you from traffic, no parking space, too many people, buying the display since its the last pair, and the list goes on. Of course, there are alternatives.
Bazaars. Many flea markets have been sprouting all over the place. Its good choice to do some quick Christmas buys, only you have to know when and where they would appear. Here is where you can find great buys from budding entrepreneurs, backyard businesses and some fly-by-night suppliers. One should be a smart buyer and knows how to haggle. The rule here is "what you see is what you get." Be very careful on purchasing edible items unless cooked in front of you. For non-perishable goods, always check every inch of what you're buying until you're satisfied of its quality, you may never get a chance to return it and get a replacement.
Christmas Parties. I used plural form, intentionally. A regular Pinoy goes to at least 3 Christmas Parties during the Holidays. I won't go counting how many because it is quite overwhelming. There's a work Christmas party, an association Christmas party, a parish Christmas party, a close friends Christmas party, a closer friends Christmas party, a Christmas party with former classmates in elementary, high school and college, Christmas party with cousins, Christmas party with relatives on mother's side, Christmas party with relatives on father's side, and the list goes on. Exhausting? Many Filipinos would say it is exhilarating.
The Filipino Culture is a very festive one. We never grow tired of having fun, having a good time, spending time with our the people we work with, our family and friends. The Christmas Season is the peak of it all. But that doesn't mean that the fun all goes down once Christmas ends. We live up to the reputation of the longest celebration of Christmas, and welcoming the New Year is still part of the celebration.
In closing, there could be some not so good things about the Christmas season in the Philippines like greedy taxi drivers choosing passengers and destination, the occasional rogue bandits and the maddening traffic. They are part of reality, but only a small part. The bigger part of reality is that Christmas here in the Philippines is a happy one, in fact, happier than any part of the world.
Foreign people say we love to smile. Of course. We have every reason to do so. Whole year round, we've got reasons...especially during Christmas time.