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A Philippine Christmas recollection, Christmas rituals in the Philippines, Simbang Gabi (midnight mass), Sta. Rita Pampanga's Duman (green coloured glutinous rice), The joys of puto bungbong and bibingka (Philippine rice cakes)

Memoirs of a Filipino Christmas


An HGTV inspired Fireplace mantelpiece
An HGTV inspired Fireplace mantelpiece

YEARS ago, I was assigned to write a cover story on Christmas and the fortunes that can be made from selling the holidays.  My editor may not have known about it (how could she?) but of all the holidays, Christmas is dearest to my heart. That story, entitled Christmas Fortunes, covered the many layers of Christmas, from its history, to why Christmas, for all is merriment, is really about commerce.  I don’t know how many people we interviewed for the story (each of the writers were given side bars to work on) but I was game enough to go from one end of Manila to another, in search of the perfect interview and the perfect pictures and shots to go along with our television show of the same name.

Part of my story covered the glories of the holidays: from food, sweets, Christmas decors that were sold in the huge outdoor markets (like Divisoria and Baclaran) that dotted Manila, to the make-shift tiangge (flea market) that had become a popular shopping alternative for people who preferred the adventure of discovering unique wares and gifts.

Filipinos are a fun loving lot, no doubt about it, which is why we have the longest Christmas season in the world. Soon as the ‘ber months (meaning, from September onwards) Christmas carols begin filling the air.  Philippine Christmas is so warm that it’s hard not to miss the trappings we associate with it.

If you’ve ever driven or passed through the South Superhighway,  you will know Christmas has arrived by the festive and colourful lanterns hanging along the makeshift roadside stalls. Even with the traffic snarls along the South Superhighway, just the presence of the bright lanterns and flickering lights made up for the agonizingly slow movement of traffic on the highway.

I got the chance to go back to my childhood neighbourhood for that story in 1993. Where I grew up in Quezon City (yes, that’s the city’s name, after a Philippine President), there is a church where all of us children were baptized and confirmed; where we heard mass every Sunday (there were Sundays when we went to the Manila Cathedral in Intramuros). Lourdes Church holds many memories of christenings, baptisms and on Christmas Eve, the highlight of the Christmas mass, held outside on the parking lot. A huge manger with towering statues of the holy family brightly lit in the evening sky.

As a child, I remember buying balloons, rice cakes and small tin toys outside the church after hearing mass.  We marked Christmas with simbang gabi (midnight mass) and after mass, buying rice cakes called bibingka (steamed rice cakes served with grated coconut) and puto-bungbong (purple coloured sticky rice snack served in banana leaves with grated coconut and brown sugar best eaten piping hot) that was sold in stalls outside the church.

I might not be the only one missing the long Christmas season in the Philippines. I was talking to my mom the other day, and she was saying that next Christmas (2009) she and my dad will be going home for the holidays. With 11 of her kids based in North America (and one left in the home country) she was pining to spend time there amidst the festivities that she has not seen in a long time.


Perhaps the very reason I recall Christmas with such fond memories has to do with how my parents milked the holiday for all its worth. We all participated in the search for the right tree, usually bought along the Luneta Park where vendors lined the walks with a variety of dried trees, branches, tinsel, available in all sizes.There was even one time when we made a tree out of cotton balls.

We didn’t need prodding to decorate the tree. We did it out of enthusiasm. There would always be a parol (paper lantern) hanging outside our window. Every house tried to outdo the neighbours with the best lantern on the block.


As Christmas neared, my dad would bring home a leg of Chinese ham bought from Binondo. It would hang in the kitchen and the smell would waft throughout the house. Imported fruits like grapes and apples were something we saw only on the holidays, so the smell of apples in the house ushered Christmas in our house. Wedges of queso de bola (Dutch Edam) would appear on our breakfast table, which is why even to this day, having edam cheese on our table symbolizes the holidays

I remember waking up in the mornings with my dad playing traditional Christmas carols on his stereo or his reel to reel tapes. From Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Doris Day, Andy Williams, Tony Bennett, and all those traditional Christmas songs about white Christmas and sleigh bells ringing, and of course, how could one forget “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house….”

One Christmas I was gifted with a miniature tea set.  I don’t remember who gave me the tea set, but the blue and white tea cups and the tiny silver spoons that went with it became part of many Christmases for years to come. My sister and I who were nearest in age would partake of tea time in our sala (living room), drinking coffee with duman (Sta. Rita Pampanga’s toasted green coloured glutinous rice that is a well loved delicacy only available during the Christmas season which my mom would order from her hometown) while children serenaded the neighbours with Christmas carols that went all night, singing for change that sometimes never came.

Even today, memories of those long-ago Decembers come unbidden. I suppose I am biased that nothing of the present even compares to those Christmas memories. I’ve tried to give my children that kind of Christmas, but obviously, the reason those holidays were so successful was because my parents gave of themselves so much and you wonder how they could have done it, because there were a dozen of us competing for their attention.


Table centerpiece silver reindeer
Table centerpiece silver reindeer

Maybe it’s high time I asked my mom for some of our childhood pictures. My son went back to Manila for a holiday over the summer. He took pictures of my childhood home and though the home is now gone and the property sold, my mom will tell you she misses it a lot, but yet, whenever she’s on holiday in Manila, it comes to a point when she needs to pack up and get on a plane with my dad, back to Metro DC. This, she says, is her home now. And I can see why when her kids descend on her on any given day, she is there, looking after her garden, cooking up a storm in the kitchen, driving to the grocery with my dad. I guess my Christmas memories will live on, because my parents made sure of that.

Even with the econonomic gloom and doom, my only wish is for all to have a truly wonderful and blessed Christmas.



About thesweetesthoughts

Wife, mother, writer. Passionate about fitness and exercise, loves architecture and culturally relevant issues.


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