Christmas celebrations vary worldwide

By Mavis Sayman Korsman

Christmas in the Philippines is during the four months that end in “ber.” Already in September people are greeting one another with “Merry Christmas,” decorations are put up and neighborhood children sing “Jingle Bells” and “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” in exchange for a few pennies from their audiences. Well, theirs is forever only a dream of a white Christmas, since the weather is hot year round.

The four-month Christmas celebration peaks from December 16 through 24, when Filipinos attend a daily 4 a.m. church service called Simbang Gabi. Spanish friars originally scheduled this mass in the early morning so the farmers could attend the service before attending to their animals.

We all call it Mass of the Rooster, because everyone (even the priest) has a hard time waking up this early, hours before the rooster has crowed his “tag-ta-gaok.”

I hear that in America the rooster says “cock-a-doodle-doo.” It’s funny how even the animals around the world speak different languages.

After the service, churchgoers meet outside in the churchyard for hot chocolate, native coffee, salabat (boiled ginger roots), rice cakes and pandesal (sweet buns rolled in bread crumbs). The morning get-togethers continue until Christmas Eve, with a different family bringing the snacks each day.

I remember my mom telling my brother and I that if we attend this morning Simbang Gabi, our wish for a Christmas miracle would come true. And so, I wished hard and prayed hard for that miracle year after year. But, like the children carolers and their dream for a white Christmas, my wish for that gift of a pretty new pink dress was also forever just a dream.

Indeed, we never had gifts at Christmas and we hadn’t heard of any Santa Claus. In fact, while growing up, I never had toys and neither did my friends. But, to us, we were the happiest kids in the world, playing all the time, climbing the coconut and mango trees, catching crabs in the river, and looking for jellyfish and starfish at the beach.
I remember my mom reminding us that having food on the table is the best gift. Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) dinner consisted of rice, pancit (noodles with veggies), adobo (sautéed chicken in soy sauce), egg rolls, tuba (coconut wine) and fresh fish that we had caught that same morning. But, it is the lechon (roasted pig) that we looked forward to the most.

For Filipinos, this is a time for sharing their holiday cooking with neighbors, friends and even strangers. We call it “open house,” where we leave our house and food open to everybody.

Depending on family circumstances, some neighbors can afford certain foods, while others cannot. But, regardless of financial means, each share with the others, so that those who cannot afford a roasted pig, for example, get to eat and enjoy along with everyone else.

There are 11 million Filipinos living abroad (10 percent of the total population), and these ex-patriots send money to their relatives or order foods online to be delivered to their houses.

The center of a Filipino family Christmas gathering is always the Lola (grandmother), who is respected, highly admired and always present.

On Christmas Day, the grandchildren line up in front of Lola, and she gives each child a few pennies. This was always my favorite part because I was the oldest grandchild and the rule is that the older the child is, the more pennies he or she receives.

The final highlight of the Christmas celebration is the annual family reunion, in which we meet and get to know our extended family. Besides the fun and celebration, this event has an important practical purpose. It is taboo in Filipino culture to marry a blood relative, even an extremely distant one.

At the reunions, young people learn who are their third, fourth and even fifth cousins. By getting to know all of these shirttail cousins, one avoids future embarrassment in which Lola informs you that your sweetheart is actually the grandson of Lola’s third cousin twice removed.

After Christmas has passed and the new year has begun, Filipinos return to their everyday toils of school, fishing, pig hunting or coconut farming. But, the true meaning of the Christmas season remains with them, and in just eight months the sounds of “Jingle Bells” begin again.