By Ana Villanueva-Lykes
It’s the night before Christmas and children are singing carols at the door. “Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh, through the fields we go,” they belt out, laughing all the way. Inside, People watch, smiling, not thinking that if the kids were indeed dashing through the snow, their toes would freeze in their tsinelas while jingling, not bells, but makeshift tambourines. None of them have ever seen real snow either.
Next door, a little girl is dreaming of Santa leaving gifts under the tree. She is not worried that Santa may not be able to get in their locked house without a chimney.
Filipinos don’t worry about freezing toes or how Santa can’t get in the house. None of these matter, yet we embrace St. Nick who would probably die of the tropical heat or the Snowman who would melt in an instant should we set him in our front yard (if we can find the snow to make one). We make these characters and traditions our own even when they are not applicable to us or have no significance to us.
Cards and décor are festooned by Western icons that do not apply to us. We deck our halls with fake garlands and sing about white Christmases, the ones that we’ve never known before. Even singing “Ang Pasko ay Sumapit” at people’s doorsteps, like the giving of cards and gifts and the commercialization of the holiday, are copied from the Americans.
Inside the house, the baby in the manger is overshadowed by the plastic tree twinkling with a hundred little light bulbs and fake snowflakes. We revere it like an altar, offering gifts at its feet, not really knowing its origins.
There are a number of speculations to the tree’s beginning and none of which are relevant to us. The Christmas tree’s roots trace their way back to early modern Germany, symbolizing evergreen trees in pre-Christian winter rites and the conversion of German pagans. Tree worship was popular among pagan Europeans, a practice that survived their conversion to Christianity. The decoration of evergreens was said to scare away the devil.
For the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews, the tree and the wreath symbolized eternal life. For us Filipinos, the PVC tree, introduced by the Germans in the 19th century, is where we set up the gifts for loved ones and where we gather to celebrate family.
Close by is the Nativity Scene, an image that we hold close to our hearts as a predominantly Christian country. We make the crèche our own, calling it the belén, the Spanish word for Bethlehem, owing it to our Spanish colonizers.
Like the belén, many of our Christmas traditions were inherited from our Spanish colonizers. One of them is Noche Buena, the Christmas Eve dinner. Although the traditional midnight feast was handed down to us, we made the menu very Filipino with pancit, hamon, queso de bola (although it is a Dutch cheese), lumpia, and bibingka surrounding the lechon. Even the dishes we copied, we “filipinized”, sweetening the spaghetti and sprinkling cheese to our fruit salad.
Another borrowed custom is the Misa de Gallo, the midnight Mass celebrated on Christmas Eve inspired by the early Christians of Jerusalem who honored the birth of the Lord with a midnight vigil in Bethlehem. The Simbang Gabi is our own version of the Misas de Aguinaldo, the dawn Masses of Christmas held from the 16th to the 24th of December. Although historians claim that the devotional Mass, originally celebrated in the evenings, was said to have been moved at dawn as a compromise for exhausted Filipino farmers, the Misas de Aguinaldo is also being observed at dawn in other Spanish-speaking countries.
Then there’s the aguinaldo, the customary gift given to godchildren. The Christmas aguinaldo usually comes in the form of crisp peso bills handed in red envelopes, inspired by the Chinese. But not surprisingly, the word aguinaldo is a Spanish word meaning gift. Countries like Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Mexico have their own form of aguinaldo as influenced by the Spaniards.
Without a doubt, it is the Spaniards who have greatly influenced our Yuletide celebration. After all, it is our 300-year colonizers who introduced Christianity and ultimately the practice of commemorating the birth of the Savior. Mixed into the pot are the contributions of the British, the Germans, the Americans, and the Chinese which resulted into a heterogeneous tradition. Every year we cook up a celebration that is something of our own with all these influences as our ingredients, spicing it up with our generosity, creativity, and a grateful heart.
We reinvent what is borrowed by making everything grander. A 12-day celebration for others is stretched into a three-month extravaganza. While New Year’s is reflective for most, ours is a big bang with fireworks going off till dawn to drive away evil and bring good luck (a belief that originated from the Chinese). And the celebration isn’t just a day, it’s a three and a half-day holiday with the 31st made into a sandwiched holiday and the 30th, Rizal Day, also another reason to celebrate.
Even Filipinos overseas have redefined the meaning of the art of giving at Christmas. Around December, remittances pour from Pinoys abroad and the balikbayan boxes arrive, packed with canned goods and fluffy towels. Relatives hope the box arrives before Christmas that they may partake of an American Christmas, a whiff of evergreens. And although we copied caroling from the Americans, we sweeten the songs with Filipino generosity by rewarding the songsters with coins or treats.
So yes, we borrow Santa in his thickly insulated red suit and even Jesus in his manger. Most of us may not know the origins or the true meaning of some of these symbols like the tree or the wreath, but all that matters is that they signify for us a time of giving and thanksgiving. Gift-giving may be an inheritance from the Americans, but giving is inherently Filipino.
You might say that the parol, an iconic Filipino Christmas image, is also inspired by the Spaniard’s Christian teachings (even the term parol was coined from the Spanish word for lantern), a reminder of the star of Bethlehem, but for us, its significance shines brighter than the tinsel and is purer than snow. After all, Christmas for Filipinos goes beyond the packed malls or the songs of good cheer played over and over until it has lost meaning. Christmas for us is all about family, giving, and ultimately bringing glory to God.