WORLD’ LONGEST FESTIVAL
Eto na ang Pasko! “Christmas is here”, as Filipinos worldwide say it.
Where does one find a people with the most Christmas spirit in the world? For some, it may be hard to say for certain, but if a global competition were to be held today, the Philippines would have an excellent shot at winning.
How come? Well, this Southeast Asian island nation has the world’s longest festive season – and pulls no punches in its celebratory zeal during the length of the period, with lavish light displays, masses, and festivals held throughout the country from September until January.
One of the most populous nations in Asia, it also helps that the Philippines is an overwhelmingly Christian nation. Approximately 90% of Filipinos are Christian and 80% of that slice are Roman Catholic – an influence ingrained for centuries as a result of its experience as a Spanish royal colony starting from the mid 16th century until the very end of the 19th century.
A MIXTURE OF TRADITIONS
Christmas in the archipelago is celebrated by Filipinos as one of their biggest holi days. They have earned the distinction of having the world’s longest Christmas season. To begin with, Christmas carols are heard over the airwaves, now ima gine this, as early as September lasting until Epiphany (the visit of the Magi to the Baby Jesus) on 6 January.
Then, for the more pious, the Christmas season further extends to the Feast of the Black Nazarene held every 9th of January or longer if it’s the Feast of the Santo Niño de Cebú on the third Sunday of January. The ‘official’ observance of Christmas in the Philippines, however, starts from 16 December beginning with the week-long (16th to 24th December) Simbang Gabi (or ‘Night Masses’) cul minates with the Misa de Gallo (or ‘Rooster’s Mass’) to Epiphany.
With all that being said, Christmas in the Philippines is actually a blend of Western and local traditions. Yes, there is Santa Claus, the obligatory Christmas tree, sending of Christmas cards, and singing Christmas carols which have all been incorporated from the Christian cultures of the West but have all been absorbed and adapted to fit the particular nature and personality of the Filipino people.
A FOND REMINDER
In this archipelago of 7,100 islands as well as in other large communities of overseas Filipinos around the globe (especially in the United States), Christmas time is where Filipino homes (and buildings they own or lease for business) are adorned with beautiful 5-point star-shaped lanterns, called paról (from the Span ish farol), meaning “lantern” or “lamp”. These lanterns represent the Star of Beth lehem – the heavenly body which is said to have guided the Magi which Filipinos describe as the Tatlóng Harì or Three Kings.
Paróls are an iconic and beloved expression of the Christmas spirit for Filipinos just as Christmas trees are to Westerners so much so that there is even a Giant Paról Lantern Festival held each year during the first week of December in the city of San Fernando (Province of Pampanga) which manages to attract both local and foreign tourists.
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Filipino creativity and ingenuity can sometimes astound you. Take for example how craftsmen design the giant dancing Paról lanterns in the Philippines. At times, it seems impossible to make thousands of small lights dance in clockwork sequenced patterns that do not repeat themselves for minutes on end. Designs are getting more intricate and complex each year. Dozens of small internal electrical rotors and on-off switches are used to drive movement of these tiny light bulbs using an ingenious home grown method to make each Paról lantern not only visually spectacular but to also make them larger to set a record during the annual giant lantern festival. These marvels of invention are even made to “perform” their show through a medley of music non-stop up to the wee hours of the morning. The displays are all simply mind boggling and audiences stay on for hours during competition delighted to be enter tained in such ways as never before.
Over the years, these giant lanterns have grown in design, sophistication and size – approximately 20-feet today, and in some cases illuminated by about 3,500 to 5,000 small light bulbs hand-controlled by electronic switches and manipulated to highlight various lighted patterns inside them.
Paróls are a comforting indication to Filipinos worldwide that Christmas is on its way and a fond reminder of how their communities come together every year to string up these beautiful lights. It happens only once a year, so residents com bine their efforts to build and string them up for the community to marvel at.
Besides the plethora of food that is made using ‘special’ recipes, another tradi tional symbol of Christmas that has been passed down from one generation to the next is the belén – a creche or tableau depicting the Birth of Christ. The term belén is derived from the Spanish name for Bethlehem which remind Filipinos of theirs is a redemptive faith and that good shall also triumph over evil at the end of things.
A WHOLE DAY WITHOUT SLEEP
During the long festive season, two days stand out prominently because these highlights the occasions where Filipinos families and extended members and close friends all gather round each other to renew their bonds in an atmosphere of merry-making and feasting.
Kitchens become furious beehives of activity. Delicacies are made for the occa sion like Lechon (pit-roasted pig), Bibingka – a fluffy glutinous rice cake some what like pancakes baked in a clay pot topped with slices of white cheese and salted duck eggs; Puto Bumbong – a dessert made from moist purple-coloured ground rice steamed inside bamboo tubes and placed atop a specially-built steamer-cooker then spread with butter and sprinkled with sugar and grated coconut; and Keso de Bola – balls of cheese with red waxy coverings.
When they can afford it, Filipinos of all walks of life manage to augment their centre table with colourful fruits, other rice cake delicacies and prepare fruit or ‘buko‘ (young coconut) salads for dessert which in this case describes just a few of a host of numerous food items that emerge for Christmas Eve family dinner events held in homes.
Christmas Eve in the Philippines is a whole day without sleep. It is a continuous celebration moving right into Christmas Day. As December 24th dawns, the last Mass of Simbang Gabi is attended before the sun rises, then preparations begin for Nochebuena – referring to the night of Christmas Eve when a family meal that takes place after midnight of the same day.
Then of course comes Christmas Day – a popular much-awaited day for Filipino children to visit their uncles, aunts, godmothers, and godfathers. At each home visited they are presented with a token gift, usually candy, money, or a small toy. Food and other refreshments are offered at each stop. It is also a day of family closeness, and everyone wishes good cheer and glad tidings.
Adversity Is No Stranger
MENDING BROKEN HEARTS
This year, Christmas will not be the same for many Filipino families. The tragic consequences brought about by Typhoon Haiyan in November has left hundreds of thousands homeless, destitute and with broken hearts.
But many Filipino families are leaving aside a portion of their Christmas budgets to help fellow countrymen especially those who are now truly in need of mend ing their broken hearts. It is a reminder for those celebrating Christmas in the Philippines (and those beyond its shores) that many of us who are more fortu nate to have escaped calamity of humongous proportions have much to be thankful for this holiday season.
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A week after Typhoon Haiyan tore through the Philippines, the adrenaline-fueled response to the storm and its aftermath has faded from the streets of devastated provincial cities like Tacloban. Now, the grim realities of daily life have taken its place. Nevertheless, before any streams of meaningful relief and recovery funding trickled into the country, humanitarian workers and military troops from around the world like New Zealand, Australia, the UK, USA, the Vatican and other countries under the UN and the EU converged on the Eastern Philippines, racing against time to rescue and feed those devastated by the storm. Reaching all the victims and assisting the survivors – including more than 2-million people in need of food, medical atten tion and shelter, according to the Philippines government was the priority. Then there was also the grim task of locating the dead and burying them quickly to avoid the spread of disease.
The death toll from Haiyan – one of the strongest typhoons on record has risen to 5,560 with 1,757 others still missing, according to Philippine officials. The United Nations said at least 14-million people have been adversely affected, including 1.8-million displaced children many of whom have been orphaned. The survivors are the ones who have lost everything – homes, belongings, liveli hoods and even loved ones. Listening to their harrowing stories can send shivers up your spine.
“The water was so strong, also the wind and the rain. Our house was cut into two,” 15-year-old Shylyny Therese Negru recounts the day when fate conspired to wreck her young life to pieces. She and her three surviving brothers – ages 3, 6 and 12, are among a still unknown number of children in the eastern Philip pines who lost their parents to the massive Nov. 8 storm.
AND THEN SHE WAS GONE
Shylyny said she climbed to the roof top of the family’s modest two-story home when the water suddenly rose. She and her brothers clutched wires and just about anything else they could hold on to for dear life. “The last time I looked, my mother was just beside me, but when I looked again moments later she was gone,” motionless and staring at the floor with tears running down her cheeks.
Her 12-year-old brother, Richard Chris Negru, held on to their mother’s hand, but she could not move because her legs were pinned under debris. He said she told him to hold on to his younger brothers, to take care of his siblings and to be a good boy. Then she let go, and was swallowed by the rising water, and then she was gone.
Shylyny and her surviving siblings will never again experience a joyous Christ mas with her whole family as was in the past. But in her story of adversity, it clearly seems, there is still hope. “It doesn’t matter if we’ve lost everything, as long as we can have our parents here,” says Shylyny, a high school student who dreams of becoming an accountant or a journalist. She stoically accepts that her parents are dead; she only wishes to find their bodies, and the body of a brother who also did not survive, for a decent burial and closure.
REACHING THOSE WHO NEED IT
The United Nations made an initial humanitarian appeal for US$ 301-million in aid for the typhoon victims just days after Haiyan hit. A spokeswoman for the local UN office told a news conference last Friday (29th November) that inter national donors had so far contributed US$ 164-million. The UN will make ano ther appeal for more funds this December.
While the international relief effort is ongoing and aid is going to the Philippines after Haiyan’s wake, it is in many cases not reaching those who need it. Now it is mostly the people of the Philippines and relatives living abroad that are helping the survivors of Typhoon Haiyan using their own personal resources. It is an informal and sometimes underground supply chain that is extending a lifeline too many distressed and desperate people by putting some food on their table.
In a manner of speaking, they are putting themselves through a lot of torturous gymnastics but that is just minuscule compared to the real physical, emotional and psychological pain and suffering their relatives are still going through. One such good-hearted person – among thousands of others who have run the gaunt let to aid stricken victims of Typhoon Haiyan remarked, “It took me about 30-hours travelling by ship and bus to come here. I brought with me dried squid, rice, noodles, canned goods, medicine, soap and matches for my sister and her family.”
The effort is repeated almost daily and one can only carry so much along in a bundle traversing the damaged routes to the most affected areas. Yet, many members of families from as far away as Manila in the northern island of Luzon and the southern island of Mindanao still manage to heroically undertake and endure long journeys by air, sea and land to bring food packs, tents, medicines and other materials to stricken relatives who have so far not seen any practical help from the much-publicised local government and international aid activities published in the press and over the internet.
THE REAL SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS
For the Haiyan victims now struggling to survive in the Philippines, Christmas 2013 will be a time of grief, sorrow and of dire need. Likewise, many relatives are saddened that at Christmastime – when they think of their departed loved ones who will not be able to come home for various reasons, the joys of Christmas will be looked at in a new way this year.
Now, it apparently seems, a few affected ones of the disastrous storm are begin ning to stay with friends and unaffected local communities are starting to share whatever they have, especially to those who have babies, children or elderly members amongst their carry and care.
Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. Sadly, many think that Christmas is necessarily about things. Commercialisation has bended their think ing towards this mindset. Rather, a genuine Christmas is about being good to one another, it’s about the Christian ethic, it’s about kindness pure and simple. A good conscience is a continual Christmas that cherishes peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy.
That, in the final analysis, is the real spirit of Christmas. Maligayang Pasko sa inyong lahat!
Filipinos in Christchurch | Eto Na Ang Pasko