By Joanne Derecho. Joanne is a full-time mom, a writer, and 100 percent Filipino. She lives in a seaside town in Italy with her husband, her daughter Isabella, and their cat Sashimi.

Ask any Filipino what their favorite holiday is, and they will likely say it’s Christmas. Christmas is one of the holidays everyone most looks forward to in the Philippines.

Starting in September and ending on January 9, the Christmas season in the Philippines is famous for being one of the longest in the world. For Filipinos who moved to other countries either to work or to immigrate, Christmas always brings a sense of nostalgia.

Although Filipinos may adapt easily to their host country’s way of celebrating holidays, some unique Filipino traditions can’t be duplicated elsewhere. If you’re a Filipino living abroad, you’re sure to recognize and miss these things.

Filipino Christmas

Going to Simbang Gabi with Your Family

Simbang Gabi or Misa de Gallo is the Philippines’ way of celebrating Advent. The tradition had its roots when Spain colonized the Philippines for over three centuries until its independence on June 12, 1898.

It’s a series of nine Masses starting as early as 4 a.m. on the days leading up to Christmas. The first Mass begins on December 16, and it ends on December 24, when they hold a midnight Mass.

If you’ve done Simbang Gabi, you undoubtedly remember your parents or grandparents waking you up early in the morning and the feeling of the cold morning air as you struggled to keep up while walking to church. They would have decorated the church with Christmas lights, and a nativity scene would always have been present.

After the Mass, there are plenty of street vendors outside selling bibingka (rice cakes) and the Christmas favorite, Puto bumbong. This is a type of rice cake steamed in bamboo tubes. It’s usually purple, and it’s served with shredded coconut and brown sugar.

If the food after the Mass is not enough motivation to go to Simbang Gabi, Filipinos also believe that if you complete all nine of the Masses, a wish that you made during the first mMass will come true.

Decorating with a Paról

The paról is the Philippines’ version of the Christmas lantern. For Filipinos, it’s a visual representation of the Christmas spirit, a symbol of the star of Bethlehem.

You can see the paról hanging outside windows, in the streets, in malls, and anywhere else you can think of. You know Christmas is near because streets will be lined with massive parols, treating people to a beautiful light show.

Traditional parols were made from papel de japòn (Japanese paper) and illuminated by candles. But as time went by, the materials evolved to include capiz shells and colorful plastic, illuminated by electric lights.

Enjoying Christmas Carolers

Once the first Simbang Gabi finishes, Christmas carolers will be on their feet going from house to house singing Christmas songs to spread the season’s cheer.

Neighborhood children form groups and sing well-known songs like Jingle Bells, Silent Night, and Filipino Christmas songs such as Ang Pasko ay Sumapit. Homemade instruments made from cola bottle tops or biscuit tins accompany them.

If you are happy with the songs, you can give them one or two pesos and wait for them to come back the next night.

Carolers may also come in a more organized form, such as from your local church group or the school or office. They’ll usually send a letter beforehand informing you when they’ll visit your house. It’s expected for the host to serve snacks and give some money after listening to a medley of Christmas songs.

Celebrating “Noche Buena”

Noche Buena is Spanish for “good night.” In Spanish-speaking countries as well as the Philippines, Noche Buena refers to Christmas Eve and the feast before Christmas. It’s the highlight of the Christmas celebration.

Other Latin countries celebrate Noche Buena, but in the Philippines, Filipinos eat a Noche Buena feast after hearing midnight Mass. Each Filipino household has its tradition of celebrating Noche Buena, and the food served is diverse.

But usually, the feast will include lechon (roast pig, chicken, etc.), queso de bola (cheese), jamon (ham), embutido (a type of meatloaf), and Filipino-style fruit salad, to name a few.

Noche Buena is also when children open Christmas presents coming from their ninongs and ninangs (godparents). Certainly, many Filipinos have memories of waking up at midnight to eat and open presents.

Christmas Parties Galore

Filipinos love to have a good time with their loved ones, and Christmas is one of the best excuses to throw parties. You’ll find Christmas parties everywhere during the Yuletide season in the Philippines.

These parties come in many permutations​​—office Christmas parties, church Christmas parties, family Christmas parties, neighborhood Christmas parties… you get the idea. Each event comes complete with gift-giving, songs, games, and of course, tables laden with mouthwatering food.

People usually come home carrying gifts, leftovers, and a ton of memories.

Filipino Christmas

Being with Friends and Family

Of this whole list, family and friends are what Filipinos miss the most while away from home.

Although Filipinos miss their loved ones all the time, Christmas, the season of togetherness and family, takes it to a new level. Filipinos try to fill this void by making new friends in their home countries and adapting to their home country’s way of celebrating Christmas.

If they have loved ones in the Philippines, they make phone or video calls. Filipinos also send big Balikbayan boxes to their loved ones full of gifts, food, electronics, and more.

In addition to sending these boxes of love, gifts of money are also a way to say “I love you” and “I miss you.”

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