Appropriating Christmas: How the Philippines took a foreign religious holiday & made it their own

Christmas is more fun in the Philippines! Christmas begins September 1 and ends in December. The joke is that this is because these are -ber months (all ending in -ber), which is reminiscent of brrrr and admittedly is the coldest things get in the Philippines (where daily temperatures begin at 25C and go up). I thought that a look at Filipino Christmas and a comparison with the Christmases practiced in other parts of the world, might help us further understand the process of appropriation.

The Christmas I remember included a variety of images, from Jesus in the manger, to Santa Claus’ red suit. There were shepherds, angels, wise men, reindeer, carols, Christmas songs, presents, and turkey dinner. We put up decorations, stood up Christmas trees, sat on Santa’s knee, and participated in and attended Christmas pageants. We debated: Should it be Christmas or X-mas? Is it proper to celebrate Christmas before Remembrance Day? When is the best time to tell our kids that Santa isn’t real. If Christmas falls on a Saturday, do we need to have a church service on both Saturday and Sunday or can we just have one? The longest kind of celebration for Christmas was the 12 days immortalised in the song. Canadians even had Bob and Doug MacKenzie’s version to enjoy!

What perhaps I didn’t realise back then was that Christmas is an intensely cultural experience and different cultures express and experience Christmas in different ways. Just go back over the lyrics to Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? to see the absurdity of some of our ideas!

Christmas is an important time of the year for Filipinos. Preparation begins September 1 when malls begin playing Christmas carols. Soon decorations appear that depict various “Christmas” scenes. In mid-November, people began planning Christmas parties at a variety of locations: A person can expect to attend multiple Christmas parties each Christmas season. The start of Simbang Gabi on 16 December is significant in more ways than one: Not only does it signal the final nine days leading up to Christmas, it also signals the start of Christmas Carol season. 

While it may be called Christmas there are some features of a Philippine Christmas that differ from the Christmases I experienced as a kid in Canada and maybe from the Christmas that you are used to.

World’s Longest Christmas. I guess we can begin at the four months of Christmas. Filipinos often brag that they have the longest Christmas celebrations of any place in the world. They also sometimes apologetically say that they start too early. I guess maybe I could point out that perhaps everyone else starts late?

Parol. The picture at the top of this post is of a parol. The parol is the ultimate Filipino Christmas decoration. Children learn to make these in elementary school and every house has at least one. The simplest parol feature a bamboo frame with colourful plastic skin while the more complex ones feature lights and music. The centre of parol culture is the province of Pampanga, just an hour or two north of Metro Manila, where craftsmen have perfected the art of parol. They have even developed a home-grown system for making the lights dance that predates modern digital light controllers.

Simbang gabi. Simbang gabi is nine days of early morning worship at the local church. It begins on December 16 and goes until Christmas Eve. Some treat the experience as panata, or vow, believing that God will grant their request if they attend each of the nine days.

Christmas caroling. Christmas carolling in the Philippines is a type of wassailing, similar in some ways to Canadian Halloween practices. What is interesting is that one of the more popular Filipino Christmas carols is actually about wassailing. Perhaps the best-known example of Christmas wassailing is in the popular Christmas carol We Wish You a Merry Christmas. As one looks at the lyrics one sees the wassailing process, described from demands for treats (“give us some figgy pudding”) to threats (“we won’t go until we’ve got some”). (Actually the Christmas carol “I love to go a-sailing” is actually “I love to go wassailing.”)

One year I did a study on Christmas carolling in our community. The choice of songs was limited. More than half of the groups sang the typical Christmas medley of Sa May Bahay Ang Aming Bati [We Greet the Owner of the House], We Wish You a Merry Christmas, and Thank You Very Much with two more groups merely omitting Thank You Very Much. By far the most popular song of the evening was Sa May Bahay Ang Aming Bati at 11 hits followed by We Wish You a Merry Christmas at 10 hits, and Thank You, Thank You, Thank You Very Much! at 9 hits. I was surprised that Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit [Christmas is Drawing Near] was only sung once that evening. Other songs included Jingle Bells, Noche Buena [Christmas Eve], Pasko Na Naman Muli [It’s Christmas Time Again], Last Christmas, and Maligayang Pasko [Merry Christmas]. While all of these songs are identified as Christmas carols, none of them makes more than a passing reference to the birth of Jesus.

In the province of Samar caroling is called Pananarit, a Waray-language retelling of the story of Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay in Bethlehem. Carolers go from house to house asking, through song, “Can you see us here?” Those in the house answer “There is no room in the inn.” The complexity of the song required many singers. The song is quite lengthy, taking up four pages of paper, and a caroller was expected to know it perfectly if they expected to receive a prize. This is repeated every night until Christmas Eve when English songs such as We Wish You a Merry Christmas are permitted. This is because Jesus has now been born and so they don’t need to look for a place to stay.

Aguinaldo and the code words “Merry Christmas.” Since a major part of Christmas is gifts, there are a variety of hints that one can give in order to get a present. Aguinaldo is the term for the P20 that godparents give to their godchildren on Christmas. Some Godparents visit the bank to ensure that these P20 bills are new. In some settings the term “Merry Christmas” is code for “I am waiting for my gift,” which is why some offices ban its use. Having an Exchange Gift is a common feature at Christmas parties. The value is determined before hand to ensure an equitable distribution. 13th-month pay is enshrined in Philippine law that requires employers to give their employees an additional one-month’s pay each December.

What’s different? Christmas is a wonderful time for Filipinos. But you may have noticed a few differences with how you celebrate the same event. By and large Santa is missing. Maybe that’s because the only places with chimneys sell litson manok [roasted chicken] and anyone sliding down those chimneys would end up getting roasted. Other features of the Santa story are also far from the typical Philippine experience: Sleighs, snow, warm winter clothes, reindeer, and North Pole. Christmas carols are also different, as noted above. The Philippines has developed its own set of appropriate Christmas songs. In fact, the main indicator that Christmas has begun is that Jose Mari Chan sings his famous Christmas Song, Christmas in our Hearts.

All Christmas celebrations are in fact appropriations (like Halloween, Valentine’s Day, etc) in that they have been appropriated to bring different meanings to previously pagan festivals. Of course celebrations of Christ’s birth predate these appropriations but we don’t celebrate those anymore. Thus some of the main features of Christmas are really repurposed pagan items. This repurposing gives new meaning to old symbols. This is why I don’t agree with some who claim that to celebrate Christmas or Halloween is to embrace paganism because most paganism has been repurposed and given new meanings — examples of the conversion of culture that Andrew Walls speaks of.

I am hoping that this look at Christmas helps us understand the kinds of appropriations that are appropriate to use. Particularly those who are in the same line of work as I am, namely proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to people from another culture, can help find ways for this kind of appropriation to happen. Part of the secret I think it to let it happen organically.

What about your own Christmas celebrations? Have you experienced change in Christmas in your life? How have you made them your own? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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Remember, sharing is what friends do.

Oh, and, Merry Christmas!

Image by Eugene Alvin Villar (seav), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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