In Christmas-Crazed Philippines, Midnight Mass And All-Day Feasting

There's something relentless about the presence of Christmas in the Philippines. It's not just public spaces and homes that have strings of colorful lights and prominent Christmas displays; vibrantly colored signs in shop windows and on street vendor stalls declare their allegiance to the holidays along with seasonal discounts. To a culture already obsessed with eating well, Christmas is another reason to sample a cornucopia of food, from traditional standbys to trends like Fil-Mex cuisine.

Celebrating the full traditional Filipino Christmas is not for the faint of stomach, the lacking of endurance, or the empty of wallet. While many countries devote a couple of days at most to celebrating this holiday, Christmas season in the Philippines officially starts on December 16 and ends on the first Sunday of January. But you'll start seeing lights, wreaths, and plastic reindeers months before that—as early as September.

The Filipino devotion to Christmas is rooted in the country's Catholicism, brought over by Spanish colonizers almost 500 years ago. Spanish priests hijacked local pagan feasts to embed the religion into Filipino culture, thereby associating important Catholic events with big celebrations. The pervasive U.S. influence on the culture that began with the American occupation from 1898 to 1946 introduced a more commercial element, like Christmas shopping and seasonal sales. The U.S. influence also added Christmas trees, holiday lights, mistletoe, Santa Claus, and snow to the iconography of Christmas in the Philippines—where the average December temperature is 79 degrees Fahrenheit.

That's not to say that traditional decorations don't have their place in Filipino homes and public places, where many still have the belen—the nativity scene—prominently displayed. Belen are generally simple depictions of the nativity, but in the past decade, technology has allowed a number of imaginative interpretations. For the past nine years, a belen-making competition called Belenismo sa Tarlac—held in Tarlac, the belen capital of the Philippines—has welcomed entries like the one from the Armed Forces of the Philippines, whose 2016 belen was set inside a giant, lighted peacock topped with a glowing star in lieu of a head.

Parol, the star-shaped Christmas lantern representing the star that guided the way to the manger, has also received similar upgrades. The parol of the past used to be made of either bamboo and colorful Japanese crepe paper or capiz, the creamy, translucent shells of windowpane oysters. Nowadays, if you're shopping for a parol, you're more likely to see plastic ones with seizure-inducing LED lights, and the star design replaced by Christmas icons like Santa and reindeer.

Despite the American influence, the Filipino Christmas still revolves around church, as December 16 marks the beginning of Simbang Gabi (Night Mass), pre-dawn masses that take place for eight consecutive days and then culminating in midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Some Catholics believe that wishes are granted after completing Simbang Gabi, but an equally compelling argument for getting out of bed early is the food that's sold outside the church by street vendors.

The snack most associated with Simbang Gabi, puto bumbong, consists of heavenly cylinders of purple yam-flavored sticky rice steamed in bamboo tubes. Chewy and soft, it's served warm and topped with margarine, sugar, and shredded dried coconut. Other native snacks include varieties of bibingka: cakes made with rice flour and cooked with various ingredients.

Although different varieties of bibingka and native sweets can be found outside of the holiday season, there's something particularly festive about seeing them arrayed together on the dinner table with all of their different colors, shapes, and textures: pillowy special bibingka with salted egg, sticky squares of coconut milk and brown sugar-glazed bibingkang malagkit, and the toothsome purple, yellow, and white-layered diamonds of sapin-sapin.

Church isn't the only place where Filipinos get their fill of seasonal food. From mid-November onward, bazaars and food stalls crop up at malls and on streets, selling a multitude of food products from the culturally diverse provinces, packaged and ready to give as gifts.

If you're unsure what to give for Christmas, a haunch of ham or queso de bola (a ball of Edam cheese) is always welcomed. Both items usually show up at Noche Buena, the meal eaten on Christmas Eve after midnight mass (which is now frequently held a few hours before midnight). Most people have parties to attend during the entire season, but Noche Buena is usually reserved for the family, and it's there that you can see the history of the Philippines and its cultural influences expressed through food.

There are likely to be dishes like sisig made from chopped pig's head and liver and served on a sizzling platter, and of course, lechon (the ultimate roast pig), along with crunchy deep-fried lumpia Shanghai spring rolls, the noodle dish pancit, the classic soy sauce and vinegar-based pork adobo, and embutido, a type of steamed meatloaf that contains chorizo, queso de bola, and hard-boiled duck eggs. Most Noche Buena meals also include American-style pasta dishes like lasagna, fettucini carbonara, or spaghetti with hot dogs in a sweet ketchup-based sauce. And of course, there's always the Filipino favorite, barbecue, which appears at almost every celebration. Caterers are particularly busy this time of year, although most families have a couple of talented cooks and domestic servants who help assemble the feast.

Unfortunately, there's a dark side to all of this generosity and bounty. The expectations a lavish Noche Buena, not to mention gifts for the entire extended family, often creates an extra financial burden on relatives working out of the country, commonly known as Overseas Foreign Workers. Many OFWs are pressured to send presents and cash remittances to pay for their family's Christmas celebrations, and if they visit home during the holidays, they're expected to take the family shopping. It's not uncommon to hear stories of OFWs taking out predatory loans just to pay for Christmas expenses.

Every year, there are calls to curb excess consumption by the local clergy, who advise modesty and financial prudence, but it doesn't seem to have much effect on Filipinos' enthusiasm for eating and shopping. Still, once the Feast of the Three Kings arrives and all the final gifts have been given, it wouldn't be a surprise if many Filipinos return to post-holiday life with a secret sense of relief to go with the heartburn.