Saturday, December 5, 2009

Christmas Away From Home

Couple of weeks from now, Christmas will be here. Everywhere you go nowadays, you see a lot of Christmas decorations, the Christmas songs are playing everywhere, and the shops are filled with Christmas shoppers. I've got my Christmas tree up today, decorated with Christmas balls and lights, the presents are all wrapped up and are sitting comfortably under the tree. We've been looking forward to seeing another white Christmas minus the snow shovels and snow storms. Yet, despite all the merry decorations and great looking lights, I miss Christmas in the Philippines.

For us Filipinos, there's nothing like Christmas in the Philippines. You actually hear Christmas songs played on radio & malls as early as first week of September, but officially our Christmas season starts on December 16. It usually ends on the first Sunday of January. Christmas in the Philippines has been described as the longest Christmas celebration in the world. Okay, what usually happens on December 16? That's when the "Simbang Gabi" officialy starts all over the Philippines. People of all ages, old or young, whether you're rich or poor, everyone looks forward to Simbang Gabi. Some people never miss a single Simbang Gabi at all, most people believe that if you complete December 16 to December 24 yes, all those 9 Christmas morning masses, your wish will be granted. I had perfect attendance on my last four years that I was in the Philippines. The Mass is usually very early (some churches start as early as 3:30 AM and some start at 4 or 4:30 AM). Lovers walk hand-in-hand, whole families walk to church together and some drive, but it's more fun if you walk since there are lots of people walking and you get to eat all the Christmas goodies being sold in the streets. Groups of friends or what we call them as barkadas, all walk together, giggling and teasing each other. Churches are jam-packed, most people can't get in the church so they end up just sitting or standing right outside. As soon as the Holy Mass is over, everyone scrambles to the street stalls for freshly cooked goodies. (note: you're going to drool over the smell). Bibingka, kutsinta, puto bumbong, salabat, arroz caldo, lugaw, hot cocoa and hot coffee are all being served to hungry churchgoers by these street food peddlers. From where I came from the weather is usually cooler in December (in the early morning hours, it sometimes get down to as low as 60 degrees F).

I can clearly remember how my family celebrates on Christmas. We have a huge family gathering on Christmas Eve. All the kids (pamangkins & apos) would wait until midnight (we usually go to the Christmas Eve Holy Mass at 8:00 pm). Sometimes we would eat right before midnight, so that we can open our Christmas presents at exactly 12 midnight. The dining table at my house would be filled with tons of Filipino-style Christmas food, like Christmas ham, queso de bola, Filipino spaghetti, lumpia, fruit salad, bread, pancit, lechon and different fruits. After feasting on our Christmas dinner, every family would then exchange gifts and we'd all open them at the same time. The girsl and their friends and cousins would stay awake all night talking; the elders (including me) will spend the rest of the night karaoke singing. Around 5am, everyone would be tired and sleepy but very happy. The next day, we all wake up early around 7 or 7:30am, because there would be kids (also from the neighborhood) knocking at the doors, asking for some Christmas money. Sometimes there would be kids (usually my god kids) that go to my house (together with their parents, who are usually my friends) and I'd give them their Christmas gifts and we'd serve up some left over ham and a bit of fruit cake and queso de bola. This would go on and on until afternoon.

Then on New Year's Eve, we celebrate the same way, wait till midnight and all sorts of firecrackers in the neighborhood would fill the air with noise. And after all the noise, We would go and eat a big feast again, but this time, there would be no exchanging of gifts. There would usually be loud music, some dancing and singing, and fireworks all over the city when the clock strikes at 12:00 midnight.

Christmas is absolutely unique in the Philippines. This will be the second year that we would not be spending Christmas there. But I always celebrate it in the Pinoy ways and traditions. I am proud of my culture and traditions and I intend to celebrate the holiday season Pinoy style wherever I go.

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