How Filipinos celebrated Christmas in the Spanish era
MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Before “Merry Christmas” or even “Maligayang/Maayong Pasko,” the cry of the season then was Felices Pascuas.
Despite the Americanization of our Christmas celebration – Christmas trees, Santa Claus, and English Christmas Carols – old practices and traditions from the Spaniards remain with us to this day.
To see this clearly, one simply ought to take a look at Christmas during the Hispanic times.
Pasko as the longest holiday
Most Filipino dialects refer to Christmas as Pasko, which came from the Spanish phrase Pascua de Navidad (Easter of the Nativity).
The Filipino Christmas is said to be the longest, due to the appearance of Christmas countdowns and carols in the early –ber months.
Even during the Spanish period, the Philippines already had one of the longest Christmas observances largely due to religion.
Along with other Latin colonies of Spain, an entire Christmas season was observed as opposed to only Christmas Day – beginning on December 16 and ending with the Epiphany, usually on the 1st Sunday of January.
December 16 is the start of Simbang Gabi, the 9 devotional dawn masses that precede Christmas Day.
In Spanish, the Masses are called Misa de Aguinaldo (Gift Masses), and Misa de Gallo (Rooster's Mass). Nowadays, Filipinos use the two interchangeably to refer to either the first 8 dawn Masses or the last one on Christmas Eve.
During the Spanish period, Simbang Gabi started before the break of dawn, around 3 to 4 am, to take into account a largely rural populace.
Christmas often coincided with the harvest season, with farmers up and working before dawn breaks and abed early as well, leaving dawn the only time they have for Mass.
Before and after the Mass, townsfolk gathered in front of the church plaza to socialize. Puto bumbong and bibingka became Filipino Christmas food as they were commonly sold ever since the Simbang Gabi of old, often serving as breakfast for farmers heading to the fields after Mass.
Special events often preceded the final Simbang Gabi on Christmas Eve, the most common being, a re-enactment of the Holy Family looking for lodging in Bethlehem. This is called the panunuluyan.
Portrayed by either costumed actors or their statues, as the story goes, the Virgin Mary and Joseph roamed the town, knocked on 3 or 4 houses that were reminiscent of the Bethlehem inns, all of which turned the Holy Family away. The Holy Family then headed to the church to act out the Nativity scene, with a manger prepared in, or in front of, the church.
The panunuluyan is practiced differently in various parts of the country. Some towns have quiet panunuluyans, while other towns have theirs with marching bands and fireworks. In riverside communities, they tend to have boat processions as opposed to re-enactments done on foot. In the Visayas, they have Pastores de Belen, a retelling of the Nativity scene in song and dance.
Save for some rural areas, the panunuluyan and panunuluyan-like practices are fading across modern Philippines, with communities settling for short skits of the Nativity inside churches, schools, and town squares.
In the final Simbang Gabi, the faithful gather in somber silence to mark the coming of Christmas Day.
As the Mass draws to a close, a rousing cry of Felices Pascuas (Merry Christmas) rings out and parishioners rush to Noche buena, family reunions, or go carolling, or head to the town plaza where stalls for amusements and food are set up fiesta style.
Noche buena, gifts
Queso de bola, ham, lechon de leche and seasonal fruits have become fixtures of Noche buena feasts ever since the Spanish period. For dessert, leche flan, kalamay, and the ever-present puto bumbong are Christmas favorites, to be washed down with chocolate or salabat.
In terms of gift-giving, money seems to be most favored by both adults and children. Though toys were sold on Christmas Day, they were regarded as luxury among poor Filipinos.
Children often had to sing, dance, declaim, or perform something during family reunions or in front of their godparents before they could collect their gifts.
In Jose Rizal's novel El Filibusterismo, he comically noted that indigestion from eating too much sweets and pinchmarks from being made to perform are all what children got from Christmas.
Another popular gift item was hats. Filipinos today rarely wear hats unless they go to rural areas, but back in the Spanish period they were considered an indispensable item of clothing to beat the tropical sun’s heat.
Joseph Earle Stevens, an American who did business in the Philippines in 1893 to 1894, noted that almost everyone wore a new hat on Christmas morning.
Most workplaces were closed on Christmas Day, with the exception of shops, as people continued to shop on Christmas Day.
During the colonial period the Three Magi were the Santa Clauses of the time, on account of the 3 gifts they gave to the infant Jesus.
Their day is celebrated usually on the first Sunday of January, and is also known as Dia de los Tres Reyes (Day of the 3 Kings).
A mystery play on the arrival of the Three Kings is usually in order for this day. In some communities, they combine this play with a procession of the Tres Reyes, where costumed actors depicting Melchor, Gaspar, and Baltazar ride around town on horses giving gifts of money or sweets to children, who hound the procession to its end, hoping to snatch more gifts.
Today, only a few communities observe Epiphany in this manner, particularly in Manila and Gapan, Marinduque.
Much of the colonial period Christmas traditions and practices have changed ever since the Spaniards left the islands.
With increasing Philippine urbanization, there’s an option to take Simbang Gabi at around 8 pm instead of the traditional 3-4 am. Panunuluyans are rarely performed, Christmas carols today are in Filipino and English, and American-German-inspired Christmas trees have replaced belen nativity scene displays.
But what has never changed is that Christmas remains one of the most awaited holidays in the Philippines. Family and friends too still gather to make Christmas merry. – Rappler.com
Sources: PASKO! The Philippine Christmas by Reynaldo Gamboa Alejandro and Maria Yotoko Chorengel, Pasko: Essays on the Filipino Christmas, Edited by Cid Reyes, Tradition! - Jarius Bondoc (Observer Magazine), Christmastide by Alejandro R. Roces, Yesterdays in the Philippines by Joseph Earle Stevens, Historical and literary vestiges of the Villancico in Early Modern Philippines by David Irving, The Lopez Museum, A Time for Pastores by Rene Cinco, The Evolution of Christmas in the Philippines by Eric Giron
Nigel Tan is a Rappler intern.