Why Filipinos celebrate Christmas for more than 4 months a year ?
In the centuries-old hymn “The 12 Days of Christmas,” celebrations extend for fewer than two weeks.
Today Christmas is commonly celebrated into December, and in some regions, a considerable amount of November too.
But four months of festivities in the Philippines lends new meaning to the term “holiday season.”
The ‘ber’ months
Christmas is celebrated during the “ber” months, as it’s called in the Philippines — that is, September, October, November, and December, said Robert Blancaflor, head of the Manila-based events design business Robert Blancaflor Group, as quoted by CNBC.
"Christmas is the longest celebrated season in the Philippines and... our country celebrates it the longest globally," he remarked. “Can you picture an entire nation freely spreading warmth and affection ... this long?”
But the parties don’t finish in December.
“Christmas fever starts on Sept. 1 and concludes the first week of January,” said Marot Nelmida-Flores, a professor of Philippine Studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
In any case, she claims that this is "a very new phenomenon". And the reason why is a familiar one.
Commercialization of the holiday
“With the expansion of shopping malls, first in Metro Manila then later on mushroomed far into the provinces, Christmas songs started to be heard shortly after All Saints Day [on] Nov. 1,” said Joven Cuanang, a neurologist and recognized art and culture aficionado in the Philippines. “This intended to get people to start shopping for Christmas gifts – it was commerce-driven.”
Retail establishments bringing out Christmas-themed products sooner than in the past is responsible for the so-called “Christmas creep” in many nations. A notable difference is that while others condemn the behavior, Filipinos typically welcome it.
“Filipinos start to manufacture parol, or Christmas lanterns, as early as September,” said Nelmida-Flores. “Now, many regions of the islands have their own signature parol and Christmas theme plazas and parks.”
Another aspect that adds to seasonal happiness, said Nelmida-Flores, is the homecoming of the “balikbayan” — the estimated 2.2 million Filipino nationals who work overseas, according to the Philippines Statistics Authority. Overseas Filipino workers paid about $30 billion dollars back to the Philippines in 2020, which equals nearly 10 percent of the country’s entire gross domestic product, according to data website Statista.
That likely won’t happen this year. Many of the international employees, who live in locations like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Hong Kong, aren’t going this year owing to the worldwide epidemic.
Marites Rheme Lopez Javier, who has been living and working in Singapore for 18 years, hasn’t visited her family in the Philippines since 2019. She hopes to celebrate Christmas with them, including her first grandchild born last month, through video chat.
Javier said radio stations began to broadcast English and Tagalog Christmas tunes around September. This is also when decorations — including Christmas trees — are put up. Festivals and beauty pageants, a contentious but enormously popular Filipino pastime, begin in October, according to her.
She recalled as a youngster her family created their Christmas tree from manila paper and cardboard. In her area, plastic trees are now the standard at a low price.
When questioned if she believes there’s “too much Christmas” in the Philippines, the 45-year-old native of Luzon island answered, “No, we adore it! It’s a very pleasant time.”
Shifting festivities early
The Peninsula Manila used to light its 45-foot Christmas tree in early November, but “we’ve moved it a bit earlier to the second Friday of October,” said Mariano Garchitorena, the hotel’s head of public relations.
He added “there’s no reason for delaying Christmas, since Christmas is always a wonderful idea,” adding that this is what “any decent Filipino, like myself, would say.”
In order to make the most of "the cold weather," Garchitorena explained, the hotel would be offering al fresco meals this Christmas season. The average temperature in Manila in December is 25 C (78 F), according to Climate-Data.org.
Nina Halley, the proprietor of the Manila flower and décor firm The Love Garden, said she began receiving Christmas orders in July.
"The West, notably the United States," remarked Halley, "is very much an impact on the Philippines." Thus, pines and cypress, pinecones, and dried oranges are prominently featured throughout the interior design of the house. Believe it or not, we import fir trees ... from Europe.”
A country of faith
According to Blancaflor, the Philippines is commemorating its 500th year of Christianity this year, which explains the country's lengthy holiday season.
Some 92 percent of people in the Philippines are Christian, according to the Stanford School of Medicine. Among the population of 110 million, moreover 80 percent identify as Roman Catholic - a proportion bigger than that of Italy.
Some 88 percent of Filipinos claimed they were highly or moderately religious, according to a 2020 study by the Philippines social research institute, Social Weather Stations.
Many of the faithful join in the ritual of Simbang Gabi, a nine-day period of pre-dawn mass attendance that lasts from Dec. 16 to 24, said Blancaflor. Spanish missionaries are credited with bringing the custom to the Americas in the 1700s.
This used to signal the start of Christmas, said Cuanang, who recalls participating as a child: “Every daybreak for nine days, we would huddle in the chill, going to church, culminating in the midnight mass on Christmas Eve.”
Back then, celebrations were only around three weeks long, he recalled.
“Most people of my generation find the four-month term a little too long,” remarked 81-year-old Cuanang.
What so much celebration says about the culture
“Filipinos are a cheerful people,” said Halley, who added that her fellow residents will find “any cause to rejoice and make food, gather around a table, sing, dance and be merry.”
Blancaflor said the Christmas season showcases the finest aspects of the Filipino people: friendliness, generosity, inventiveness, and loyalty to family.
He emphasized that Christmas is a time to show one another how much we care about one another.
Poverty levels surged to over 24 percent earlier this year, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. That corresponds to more than 26 million individuals who live below the poverty level of 12,082 Philippine pesos per month ($242) for a household of five.
The nation, including approximately 7,100 islands, is likewise prone to typhoons. On average, it’s struck by 20 a year, five of which are damaging, according to the Asian Disaster Reduction Center.
“Filipinos are fast to respond and utilize the Christmas spirit to urgently [assist] impacted individuals above everything else,” stated Blancaflor. “One of the most amazing qualities about the Filipinos [is] being able to grin through the downside of life and yet be appreciative among hardships – believing there will be a better day.”
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