We are standing in the small shopping center where we met for coffee. Kristell looks at the traffic lights ahead of us. “They would be decorated in the Philippines. And the streets would be hung with lights”, she says. We look around and realize that there are no decorations at all. Starbucks has a few stars painted on the door. But no Christmas lights around us. All the stores are dark.
“I miss the Christmas spirit that I grew up with”, Kristell says. The woman from the Philippines is used to Christmas music starting to play in September. “As soon as the -ber months start, we start celebrating Christmas – and we don’t stop until one week after New Year’s.”
The tree is up in October and the presents are placed under the tree. There are no Thanksgiving celebrations in the Philippines, Kristell says. So everything can be decorated for Christmas early. The streets are decorated, houses are, neighborhoods are. She remembers her days at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila: “By October, every tree on campus had lights on it. For the last twelve days leading up to Christmas Eve, there is a Christmas mass every morning at 5 a.m. It attracts so many students, that every morning an entire soccer field is filled. Also, there are beautiful light shows during the season and a huge firework on Christmas Eve.”
The Christmas Eve fireworks are one of several Philippine Christmas traditions. The most beautiful tradition must be the Christmas Parols.
These pretty handcrafted pieces are made out of oyster shells and “are iconic in our country”, says Kristell. They are sold in the streets during the season.
Another tradition is to hang twelve grapes above the door. They will give you twelve months of good luck. Also for good luck, people serve a plate of twelve circular fruits as desert on New Year’s Eve. They also eat fruit salad as Christmas desert. “during the Christmas season, you find fruits of every color in the Philippines.”
Beside the fruit salad, flan (creamy caramel pudding), and coco pandan (a coconut gelatin dessert) are popular Christmas deserts. For the main meal Filipinos enjoy ham, roasted chicken, Filipino eggrolls and pancit – noodles in different variations.
“Christmas is one of our biggest family reunions”, Krystell says. “My mom has 9 siblings, I have 23 cousins and everyone comes. My cousins and I used to go knock on our neighbors’ doors and sing Christmas Carols.”
The gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve. Some gifts have been placed under tree throughout the season, others are brought to the celebration by family members. “In our family, everyone (taking turns) gets to stand in front of the tree wearing a Santa hat and announces who he has a gift for. He hands the gift to that person and the next one gets a turn. Everyone gets to be Santa – I love that!” The gifts remain un-opened until the last present has been given to someone. “And then we all unwrap together. It is a big celebration.”
“I miss that. I miss the spirit and I miss the big family!”