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The Philippines can be a bit of a mystery: a rich fusion of influences and cultures often leaves visitors stumped for definition. From cockfighting, competitive karaoke, to the world’s longest Christmas season, here are some of the main traditions only Filipinos can fully appreciate.
Singing is one of the few pleasures that comes completely free here. Often naturally musical, Filipinos take to karaoke from a young age. It’s common for families to have a karaoke machine, several mikes, and heaps of old ’80s love ballads on disc. But the real reason this pastime is venerated, aside from the fact it’s fun, is that a beautiful voice – and with it the chance to break out of poverty and achieve stardom – is a dream many natives hold dear. Expect loud warbling on every island, at every party, and in every house.
Although it seems like a bloody and even cruel pastime to outsiders, within the Philippines cockfighting is just a part of life. Hopes, dreams, and fortunes are pinned onto the fate of these carefully bred birds. Cockfighting rings are a common sight even in the cities, and there are countless birds being raised for the ring at any time in the countryside. Generally the domain of men, the sport draws crowds to assess, bet, and cheer on the winners – they also eat the losers.
The Filipino way of wooing is still called courting, and its rituals can feel quite old-fashioned. Catholic women are expected to stay virgins until marriage, and so courting is generally a dignified and polite way for teenage boys and girls to get to know each other without any hanky-panky involved. “Suitors” – interested males – may “send their regards”, shower females with gifts over the years, and go on dates supervised by a chaperone. Of course, much of the younger generation is keen to get away from these old norms, but the traditional practice is still rife among middle-class families.
While this sounds like a fun idea, three months of carols can get a bit tedious. A deeply religious nation, Filipinos adopted Christmas traditions from the Spaniards and built onto those, adding some twists and rituals of their own. The decorating and music starts in October, and reaches a fever pitch in the days before December 24. Early-morning mass, midnight feasting, and diligent gift-buying all feature in the festive period. The colorful ‘parol’ (Christmas star lantern) symbolizes the holiday across the islands.
Why enjoy the beach with just your family, when you can invite your extended family, a couple of neighbors, some old classmates, and a few friends too? Filipinos have a habit of preparing a lot of food, piling into some kind of transport, and spending the whole day at the beach in a rented bamboo gazebo called a bahay kubo. Fearful of darkening their skin, Filipinos often swim fully clothed. They make multiple trips between the water and the table, where there may be several indulgent dishes and even a whole grilled pig (if it’s a special occasion.)
If you’ve ever lived in a small town in the Philippines, you’ll know just how much the Filipinos love their parades. Each village and city has its own “fiesta”, which it celebrates in unique style, and there are many more festive occasions throughout the year that call for an organized march through the streets.
Of course, many of the biggest parades are tied to religious festivals, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a great excuse for a party. One of the biggest street festivals in the country, Cebu’s Sinulog runs for several days, with raves, beauty pageants, and dance competitions all thrown into the mix. Filipino parades often involve schools and universities competing in elaborate costumes and choreographed dance routines.
This one is not easy to explain, except to say that Jollibee – a local fast-food chain more popular in the Philippines than McDonald’s – has mastered the Filipino palate. Its burgers, spaghetti, and fried chicken are a cut above what many locals are able to afford on a daily basis. Come payday, or a special occasion, a trip with the kids to Jollibee is a highlight. Even when children have grown up and gone on to much fancier dining venues, these family dinners retain a nostalgia that can’t be fulfilled elsewhere.