Interlude #4 - A Christmas Special


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Hello everyone! Kumusta ka! Welcome to today's episode, and happy holidays!

Today, I think we should—or I will—talk a little bit more about the holiday traditions in the Philippines, largely the ones I know quite well and have experienced. Because if not, I'm just going to be reciting facts that you can find on your own or maybe already know yourself. And also, this show is about my personal journey. Do we go off the rails quite frequently? Yes. That's part of the charm. Or so I hope.

But here’s the thing. There’s a lot of things I could say about the Filipino version of the holiday season. Some based on my many feelings and some more factual. But it’s going to be hard to boil it down into one episode. Also, we’re still in the figurative beginning of this podcast. Or of this journey together. So maybe right now I need to keep this simple.  Simple but personal. (Pause) I think I can do that.
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Most Filipinos celebrate Christmas to the extent that it is not just a part of the popular conscious but something more, like part of existence itself. That's just a result of demographics. Because, yeah, most Filipinos are Christian, and when Easter comes around, we can talk about some of the more extreme ways some communities celebrate it. But that's the crucifixion.  We aren't there yet. Liturgically or otherwise. For Christmas, we tell the story of the birth of Christ. Other end of the life spectrum.

And you can tell. These traditions are a lot happier. Caroling for one.... That’s a big part of the holiday. If you spend Christmas in a more rural part of the Philippines, in particular, you'll get a lot of that and probably participate in it. Singing in general is just a big part of life there. For another example, karaoke is like a familial obligation. You must participate whenever it is available.

            But that’s usually a part of a bigger party. Whether it be a wedding, baptism, or the holiday street party…. It’s a great time, creating memories that never fade in our hearts or things that we can carry with us forever, no matter how young we were. In fact, I can remember the joyful chaos of the street party from one of my first visits to the Philippines. And that is, well, odd. I was still a child then, and childhood memories don't typically last that long. After all, they are made of a weaker figurative fabric than what we spin as adults. So the details are hazy.

Regardless, I feel confident that I can remember being there. I can remember playing and eating. I remember the laughter and the joy. In my mind’s eye, I can see myself running around the tables, weaving through the legs of my relatives and neighbors as my playmates chased me. And the way the lights twinkled just like you see in movies.

It's probably an altered memory, I'll admit. That's just what happens when nostalgia starts to seep into the natural cracks that time normally creates. Sure, my cousins and I used to run around a lot. Like their children do now, and just like they do, we probably caused a great deal of chaos in our day. That part is definitely true, but (Music restarts) the rest of it--the lights in particular—that must be just a dream.

I could disparage that. But at the same time, I see it more of a placeholder than anything else. It stands for the warmth and love that defines the holiday in this country. Holiday season, actually and in a more literal sense. In the Philippines, Christmas is a lot longer than just one day.

As an extension of being Catholic, the Christmas season extends beyond the holiday. I mean, it's also because the party is great, but you know, I'm trying to transition topics. I remember this part too, this liturgical component to the Christmas celebration, even and especially from my last visit home. But at the time, I didn't know what it was we were doing or that in had any significance. I thought it was just something we did, this little neighborhood that my mother came from. I thought it our celebration. I thought it was just us.

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On the mornings leading up to Christmas, my grandmother would go around her home knocking on doors. She had always been an early riser, taking care of her household since she was a child. Such is the life of the eldest, after all. But it was different in the Christmas season. It was a happier task what with so many of her children and grandchildren home. It would always be a happy season, no matter the extra work it meant. And it did mean a lot of extra work. Christmas meant a full household and all the problems therein. But she didn’t mind it. Not at all.

My mother and her sisters would awaken right away. I would follow soon after, but my cousins struggled. Even the ones sleeping in the living room would lie like boards despite the lights and Grandmother’s yelling. They could sleep through it, I guess. Their bodies demanded they sleep through it. Were we up late the night before? Yes, but that's not the point. They needed to get ready, and instead they’d be running out the door at the last possible moment, hair still ruffled and gasping for breath.


They never really dressed up for church anyway or make too much of an appearance in the small chapel. They would sit outside the just as tiny courtyard in the dark with their friends. Grandma would bring me—the American she hardly ever got to see—to the front where everyone could see, showing me to her friends and the women my mother had grown up with.

The sun would rise once mass started. The timing just worked out that way. I don't know how intentional it was. If it all. But most people didn’t seem to notice or give it much thought, filing in while it was still dark outside just to mill about wait for mass to start. And the wait was welcomed. It was a good time to see your neighbors and talk about when their children or grandchildren would be coming back from the city or from overseas. Of course, not everyone made it back. Those who had taken a job on a boat would normally be stuck at sea, be it a commercial vessel or a cruise ship. And you would think of them fondly in their absence and while you waited, still waited, for a priest to come.

They often kept you waiting, not that anyone cared. Or everyone just understood why it was we were waiting. It was a busy time for them as well, so you knew. All the chapels were holding masses every day until Christmas, and even though there were many priests around, it never seemed like enough. All hands on deck, only to find out how big the deck really was.


This defined so much of my life when I visited for Christmas. Largely because I wanted it to. I loved the humble liturgical experience, the feeling of community, and the fact that my grandma would always buy some sort of bread from the vendor waiting outside for me to nibble on our walk back home. Usually we didn't make it all the way home. We'd stop at a neighbor's house or a relative's house for coffee and laughter.

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It could take hours to get home, and we were all tired from being up late the night before. But we didn’t care. We were happy. We were together. It was Christmas.

The early masses that happen from December 16th until Christmas are collectively called "the Misa de Gallo." But the entire experience exists outside of words. Because it's about family. It's about community. Like so much of the holiday.

The Noche Buena celebration, for example. The midnight feast drawn out to last almost the whole night because no one was going to sleep the night before the holiday anyway. It's a feast of all the family's favorite foods cooked in one overcrowded kitchen and whatever outdoor space you need to commander. And around that feast everyone would gather while karaoke plays in the background.

In some ways, it’s not particularly noteworthy. It’s just another party. It’s a giant, indulgent meal with the whole family. Or so you hope. So you try. And you pray.

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Family. That's the ultimate tradition. And I say this because I found Filipino Christmas traditions hard to pin down. With so many different communities, there are going to be many (at times conflicting) traditions. And the overarching traditions borrow from all the different eras of Filipino history, so it would be hard to explain them without the full historical context. Which we'll get to. Eventually. But despite all of these differences and contradictions, family always remains. True to life, I guess. Your family should always be there for you.

I miss mine very much. So hug yours extra tight this year. For me Maligayang Pasko. Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. And have a wonderful new year.

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