Updated: Oct 27
Author: Gaby Flores
Edited by: Dave Ryan Mikhail Go, Sharmaine Ibarra, Hysa Guarte
September is just an ordinary month anywhere else in the world, but in the Philippines, it marks the beginning of the Christmas season. When the clock strikes midnight on September 1, don’t be surprised if you start hearing Jose Mari Chan’s Christmas ballads or Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” practically everywhere you go.
Yes, that’s right — the Philippines spends the third of the year celebrating Christmas! Once September hits, the entire country is transformed seemingly overnight. Malls are decorated with baubles and silver garlands, there are Christmas lights tied to every lamppost, and some buildings even start setting up Christmas displays. The Filipinos love a good celebration, and Christmas is the best one of all.
Image from NPR, no changes made
The reasons behind Christmas in the Philippines
The question is, how did the Philippines create the longest Christmas tradition in the first place? The first clue may be easier to spot than you think. The Christmas season is also lovingly referred to as the “Ber” months by many Filipinos, precisely because it lasts from Septem-ber to Decem-ber.
Filipinos have a keen eye for word play, perhaps owing to the many languages that make up the Philippines, so it’s no surprise that this might play a role in shaping our Christmas season.
In addition, the Philippines is known to be an extremely devout Roman Catholic nation. Catholicism is so steeped in Filipino culture — owing to over 300 years of Spanish rule — that even non-practicing Catholics make it a point to attend Christmas service.
Religion isn’t the only cultural reason behind this tradition. For starters, the Philippines has 18 official public holidays every year. This figure doesn’t account for regional fiestas and other celebrations like Iloilo City’s Dinagyang Festival or Kadayawan in Davao, of which Primer estimates there are over a hundred. It’s safe to say that the Philippines is the place to go if you want to party all-year round!
Celebrations are an important cultural practice for Filipinos. Sociologist Bro. Clifford Sorita notes that counting down the days to Christmas (the 100-day countdown started on September 16 this year, as announced in radio stations all across the country) is a psychological mark that prepares us for the grand celebration.
In his words, “By knowing exactly how much time we have remaining to complete a task, instead of stressing about it, we will be able to better allocate our time.” Planning your Christmas celebration early on only heightens your excitement even more, and this excitement becomes a huge driving force for many Filipinos. It’s not just your family that you celebrate over Christmas, either. Lots of barkadas make it a point to meet up every Christmas and get together, a tradition that helps keep their friendship alive.
Image from VF Magazine, no changes made
Christmas is also when overseas workers come home, which is yet another cause for celebration. There are over 2 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) spread across the globe, and Christmas is the one time that many of them get to go home. There’s a kind of chicken-and-egg situation surrounding this phenomenon: Christmas is known as a time to be with family, which is why these OFWs make it a point to come home. Of course, their return then emphasizes the family-first nature of the holiday.
This mix of factors has made Christmas such an integral part of Filipino culture, and signals that this tradition is definitely going to stay.
Image from Manila for Kids, no changes made
Christmas in the time of COVID-19
Zoom calls and online shopping are now a common occurrence, which means family get-togethers are still going to happen; indeed, even churches now livestream their services for the devout. A photo posted by ABS-CBN News shows a security officer preparing lanterns for the San Sebastian Church in Manila, a reassuring sight that proves Christmas is still very much alive.
The ease of lockdown restrictions also means that delivery services are now up and running, with many home cooks starting their own food businesses. It’s only a matter of time before they start opening up reservation slots for the big Noche Buena feast!
In all honesty, it remains to be seen how Christmas will be celebrated in the time of COVID-19. Titas and titos alike are now joking that they’ll send face masks and rubbing alcohol as Christmas gifts, which is a tongue-in-cheek joke that’s classically Pinoy. Although the prospect of meeting with our loved ones and having in-person gatherings looks grim, many claim that the current COVID-19 pandemic won’t tarnish their Christmas celebrations.
About the author
I'm a freelance writer and Comparative Literature graduate student whose interests are in the Filipino diaspora and postcolonialism. I write on lifestyle news and current events, and find these stories a natural compliment to my academic interests on how culture and identity are constantly formed and re-formed. Outside of work and school, you can find me eating lots of spicy food or watching stand-up videos on YouTube.