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The most festive time of the year is right around the corner — for the rest of the world, that is. In the Philippines, Christmas has already begun. From setting up the decorations and playing Yuletide songs as early as September to the Day of the Three Kings on the first week of the following year, Christmas in the Philippines is several months long, and no one’s complaining. Do as the locals do and join in on the Philippine holiday fun.
Thrifty locals know that the most economical way to shop for Christmas decor would be in the markets of Divisoria in Manila. Unfortunately, this area gets crazy busy as soon as the Christmas season rolls around (which, as you now know, begins as early as September). So to avoid the madness, do your decor buying midway through the year. And when you see the chaos that unfolds in the Metro approaching the month of December, you’ll be glad you shopped ahead. Other great places in Metro Manila for buying holiday decor are Dapitan Arcade in Quezon City and Christmas Factory in Sampaloc, Manila. Stalls in places like Divisoria and Dapitan are used to bargaining with customers, so they’ll usually give you a high price to start, expecting you to haggle. Always bargain pleasantly and respectfully to walk away with fair prices for everyone.
While you’re already being proactive with the decor, might as well start early on the Christmas list too. The roads of Metro Manila get so congested during Christmas time that the government has to direct motorists to alternate routes called “Christmas Lanes” that are, at least supposedly, less busy. So to avoid wasting expensive fuel and precious time on the road, do your shopping during the lean season. With its many markets and malls, from cheap bargain bazaars to high-end shopping complexes, shoppers in Manila can find a place to perfectly suit their needs. Popular shopping areas for the frugal and the haggling experts are Quiapo, Divisoria, and Greenhills Shopping Center. While shoppers who have specific brands in mind can browse through the many shops of Power Plant Mall and Greenbelt Mall in the business district of Makati.
Unlike the United States, Filipino households don’t exactly decorate for Halloween in October and Thanksgiving in November. But that doesn’t mean they don’t already begin decorating by then. Some plastic poinsettias here, some Santa Clause figurines there, it isn’t strange for the Christmas decor to start emerging when the first “-ber” month (September) begins. Let the cheery atmosphere into your own home and start putting up your newly bought Christmas decorations.
How better to plunge into the Christmas spirit than by surrounding yourself with Yuletide tunes? Put together collections of your favorite holiday songs: some upbeat and lively for festive gatherings and some nice and slow for nights with a hot cup of cocoa (not that nights in the tropical Philippines get all that chilly, but they do get a tad cooler over these months). While everyone has their personal favorites, and there will always be the all-time holiday classics, do listen to songs of local Filipino artists. If you’re not sure where to start, the man of the season has long been Jose Mari Chan.
It’s not uncommon in the Philippines to have a Christmas party organized for any and every group you belong to. There’s the Christmas party at school, at the office, the one with your close group of friends, with your high school friends, your university buds, your cousins, your basketball team… The list goes on. It will be a bit of the snag on the budget since most of them are potlucks and most will involve some sort of “Secret Santa” present exchange, but they’re a great build-up to the grand celebration on Christmas Eve. Essentially, Filipinos are fond of them because they’re a fantastic way for people to enjoy good company, good fun, a whole lot of food.
Christmas in the Philippines is a series of never ending feasts. From every Christmas party buffet table to the great noche buena banquet, the food will be overflowing and it’ll be delicious. Don’t bother with the futile attempt to stick to your diet. It likely won’t happen and you wouldn’t want it to. Don’t allow yourself to miss out on the culmination of the country’s love for food, and just let yourself partake freely in the gastronomic merrymaking — no one will judge. As for noche buena, the grand feast on Christmas Eve, don’t forget to serve the Filipino Christmas staples: queso de bola (Edam cheese), sweet Christmas ham, and fruit salad for dessert.
In the Philippines, where over 80% of the nation is Roman Catholic, many adhere to the Christmas tradition of simbang gabi, wherein people wake up at the break of dawn (around 3 to 5 o’clock in the morning) to attend mass. These masses run everyday from the 16th of December up until Christmas Eve. Early risers can reward themselves after mass with some delicious kakanin (rice cakes) for breakfast, a variety of which are usually sold outside cathedrals during this time.
If you have kids and decide to travel to the Philippines to visit family over the holidays, this next Christmas tradition will be a treat for the little ones (maybe not so much for the adults). Filipinos place a lot of importance on family and value being closely knit even with extended family members. And Christmas is especially loved precisely because it brings the family together. On Christmas day, Filipinos visit the homes of extended family so that the kids can pay respect to their older relatives (uncles, aunts, and grandparents). Usually, the children line up to perform a Filipino greeting of respect called pagmamano (it involves taking the elder’s hand, bowing slightly as they touch the back of the hand to their forehead, and saying “mano po”). The elders then hand the children crisp bills as “aguinaldo” (the Spanish word for ‘bonus’). Godparents are generally expected to give higher amounts of aguinaldo to their godchildren.
Christmas in the Philippines is truly one of a kind. More than presents and the overwhelming amount of food, Christmas is a time to celebrate family, friends, and community, and this loving spirit seemingly wafts through the air. Savor this uplifting mood that lasts through the final quarter of the year and end the year on a high note. Enjoy the parols brightening every street, home, and corner; listen to the songs of the street carollers and their make-shift instruments; and open yourself to the happy Filipinos who make their country one of the most amazing places in the world to truly appreciate the holidays.