The majority of the people in the Philippines are Christians, specifically Roman Catholic. They're the only Asian country where most of the population considers itself Christian. And, as Christmas is a very important holiday for Christians, Christmas is a big deal in the Philippines. The Christmas celebration in the Philippines is big, like, possibly the biggest Christmas celebration in the world. The national party actually starts on December 16. There are nine pre-dawn masses celebrated in the country, every day leading up to Christmas. The holiday celebration continues past Christmas day and ends after January 6, which is Three Kings Day.
Since the Philippines is made up of thousands of islands, some areas have certain familiar aspects of Christmas culture, while others may not. For example, some areas may have a Christmas pageant, but others may not. Many Western Christmas celebrations have thrived here, though, such as Santa Claus, Christmas trees, sending Christmas cards, and singing Christmas songs.
A Filipino church decorated for Christmas
Much like in the United States, Christmas starts popping up in the Philippines before November is even over- stores start decorating for the holidays and you can hear Christmas songs on the radio. But the official holiday season starts December 16. Starting on this day, families will attend Mass while it's still dark outside. These Masses are known as "Simbang Gabi", or "Night Mass." After church, there's a fun time of socialization. Food stalls and carts show up around the churchyards and surrounding streets, so people can eat after church and spend time with each other. It must be fun to eat breakfast with your friends and family every day leading up to Christmas! Some of the foods sold are puto bumbong, a purple-ish rice cake steamed in a bamboo mold. The cake is tapped out of the mold and sprinkled with brown sugar and coconut. To drink, you could have salabat, which is like a gingery tea. There's also thick hot chocolate called tsokolate! Some families might take their breakfast home, but many take their time walking home, eating and chatting with friends.
Filipinos also love decorating their homes for Christmas. Star lanterns are hung in homes, representing the Star of Bethlehem. These lanterns are called parols. Streamers and lights may also be hung on the homes, and wreaths and candles appear often, too. Sometimes these decorations look like the kinds we have in the United States (such as a pine wreath), but other families choose to decorate their homes with Christmas decorations that are patterned after traditional designs. I think that's awesome. An artificial Christmas tree might be used, but sometimes you might see a palm branch placed in a stand and decorated. Trees can have a variety of decorations, such as candies and fruits tied with ribbon; small wood carvings; tiny star lanterns; painted shells; rice paper ornament; and empty matchboxes wrapped as tiny presents.
Christmas Eve is the culmination of all the waiting and early morning Masses in the Philippines. Some families might not even get any sleep because they're up all night partying! Houses are cleaned and sometimes new household items might be bought to replace worn out things. The families are not only getting the homes ready for friends and family visiting, but they're also preparing for the arrival of Jesus!
On Christmas day, gifts are exchanged among family members. Filipino children also traditionally visit their godparents on Christmas Day. When the children are visiting the homes of their family, they're given a small gift at every house- usually something small like candy, a little toy, or some money. Christmas festivities continue through the end of the holiday season on January 6. Between Christmas and Three Kings Day, Filipinos try to visit all their family members they haven't yet been able to see during the holidays!
Here's a recipe for salabat, or Filipino ginger tea:
1/2 lb fresh, sliced ginger
5 cups water
1 cup brown sugar
Boil all ingredients together in a saucepan for 30 minutes or longer, depending on the strength of the tea desired. Add more water if the tea is too strong. Strain and serve hot.