Why do Filipinos love to celebrate Christmas?


MANILA, Philippines – It’s no secret that the holiday season is widely celebrated in the Philippines. Filipinos prepare for the season with much anticipation. So much so that the Social Weather Stations surveys Filipinos yearly to know the public’s sentiments and expectations of Christmas. 

In the last decade alone, expectations of a happy Christmas have increased by more than 10%, with 64% of Filipinos saying they expect a happy Christmas in 2007 compared to 77% in 2017.  

But why do Filipinos love Christmas? Rappler spoke with sociologists Dr Jayeel Cornelio of the Ateneo de Manila University and Dr Manuel Sapitula of the University of the Philippines to find out why the holiday season is so widely celebrated in the country. 

Festivals, families, traditions

Christmas is beloved in the Philippines because it is first and foremost regarded as a festival. Sapitula said this means that culturally, there is already the expectation of celebration that sets it apart from other days or seasons in the year.

“The way festivals work, it should sort of transcend the banality of the ordinariness of just like any day of the year... there is a heightened sense of awareness that things will be different,” he said. 

Cornelio added that the positive outlook for Christmas is also partly influenced by the disposition with which the Church celebrates the Advent season. With over 80% of the population considered Catholic, Filipinos also celebrate Christmas as a largely religious occasion. 

“The positive outlook towards Christmas is partly framed by the way the Church celebrates it: there is the Advent season. It's a very positive disposition towards the arrival of Christ. In this sense, the Filipino's happy disposition is very much religious – think of Misa de Gallo, carolling, outreach activities,” he said. 

According to Sapitula, the traditions and the religious practices that mark the season are also what gives Filipinos a sense of ownership of Christmas.  

"Filipinos have a sense of ownership of Christmas. There are many traditions that are enveloped around Christmas... Even before the modern period, like the 1900s, those were already there: traditional re-enactments, Simbang Gabi – what we call 'cultural appropriations,'" Sapitula said. 

Christmas is also widely celebrated as a time for family. Many overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who live and work abroad majority of the year usually come home for the holidays to spend time with families at home. 

Christmas is not just a religious moment. It is very cultural: OFWs are expected to be home, families are to be reunited. This means that Christmas is not just about the birth of a child as much as it is about the family itself,” Cornelio said.

However, Cornelio also added that the fact that not all Filipinos are religious cannot be discounted.

“Most of the time, when we frame Christmas as a Filipino event in anticipation of joy, we are referring to Catholics and other Christian groups that celebrate the event. We disregard Iglesia ni Cristo, Jehovah's Witness, agnostics, Muslims, etc. We need to bear this in mind,” Cornelio said. 

PAROLS. Star parols are a common sight in the Philippines during Christmas.

Rappler file photo

'Fanfare of desires'

Both sociologists, however, added that Christmas is also considered a happy time of the year because of its wide commercialization and the practice of gift-giving. 

“While our culture celebrates camaraderie and cheerfulness, Christmas is in itself a fanfare of desires: the joy of the family is intertwined with the joys of travel, expensive gifts, bountiful feasts, sale, and all that,” Cornelio said. 

Sapitula added, “Festivals are supposed to be joyful occasions and we can’t ignore the monetary dimension of festivals: people are willing to spend. More so because gifts are expected, it's a way of reaffirming ties…by gift-giving we're able to renew the sense of obligation you have for one another. Christmas is really a time when we reaffirm that.” 

For Sapitula, the SWS survey results may also be closely related to the purchasing power of Filipinos. Since the season calls for spending on gifts, travel, and the celebration itself, many who can afford to celebrate the season may expect it to be a happier occasion.  

“I think more Filipinos are getting richer, so they are expecting a happier Christmas…Hindi pinapatay technically, ng purchasing power yung (Purchasing power does not technically kill) cultural expectations – it stays there, and I think part of the reason why people are looking forward to it is they have the means to fully abide by cultural expectations of how it's celebrated,” he said. 

SIMBANG GABI. Some Filipinos observe the tradition of hearing masses late at night or early morning during Christmas.

Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

Religious or commercial? 

With an abundance of religious meaning and commercial symbols like Santa Claus inherent in the season, would the practice of celebrating Christmas be largely commercial or religious?  

For Sapitula and Cornelio, the two dimensions are intertwined.  

“They mutually reinforce each other. They’re always connected because there are always commercial implications of religious practices. You don't do religious practices in a vacuum,” Sapitula said.

He also explained that while the essence of Christmas is religious in character, a lot of economic activity is spurred because values of Christmas may be expressed economically.

“The essence is really religious in character but it spurs a lot of economic activity. Hindi lang 'yun 'yung tipong i-affirm mo na "Pare, friends tayo." (You don't affirm ties by just saying “We’re friends.”) You really give something as gifts to be able to physically demonstrate the ties still exist,” Sapitula said.  

For Cornelio, this has allowed Christmas to become universally celebrated, regardless of its religious essence. “I do not necessarily see it as a problem because it allows Christmas to become universally palatable regardless of one's religious persuasion,” he said.

However, Cornelio mentioned that this is also what has allowed those who experience Christmas as a rather difficult time to be overshadowed. (READ: [OPINION] When Christmas is no longer merry)

“What I find problematic about the jubilation over Christmas is that it tends to ignore the realities of loneliness in our midst. Any celebration that is blind to the pain of people is not being faithful to the very story of Christmas – a story in which the unheard of (shepherds) came to hear the angels first.”  

Happy moving forward? 

With the number of events that have happened in the past year, will Christmas still stand as a joyful season? (READ: Davao City cancels Christmas, New Year feasts to condole with fire, flood victims)

2017 saw events such as the war in Marawi, extrajudicial killings, and deaths from the drug war, as well as several cases that have challenged our institutions making headlines. While these will linger over the Christmas period, Sapitula explained what is important is to look at how these events might translate over the course of the next few years. (READ: Mindanaoans most opitimistic abput Christmas, until...)

You have to look beneath the surface because externally it will look the same. It's the same Christmas songs, the same decors, the same hype. But there may be peculiarities in the social environment that might affect how people appreciate Christmas,” he said.  

Sapitula added, “If people are in a state of grief, you cannot expect (them to be happy). Pero cumulative effect siya, hindi puwede na isang taon lang. (But it should be a cumulative effect, not just one year.) If there is a sense of persistence, that means to say it's the social conditions that are themselves shifting.”

SWS reported 77% of Filipinos expect a happy Christmas this year, while a much lower 5% expect it to be sad. For Cornelio, this illustrates how Christmas is telling of the Filipino nature to always look for good things. 

“Many Filipinos are always looking for good things. Christmas is one of those seasons that allow us to see the good things…We're happy when things end right. Christmas is a good way of ending things right, even if it's just ephemeral,” he said. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.