Officialy, the early morning Misa de Gallo today, so called because of the crowing of roosters (gallo), marks the beginning of a nine-day countdown to Christmas but every Filipino, and expatriate, knows the Christmas season here starts much earlier, covering the last four “ber” months of the year.
On the surface, it all seems like a grand conspiracy of commercial interests to get Filipinos to spend more through a festival created during the Spanish colonial times and expanded by the Americans. Christmas pine trees, Santa Claus, queso de bola, hamon, even caroling about jingle bells and reindeer dashing through the snow are indeed all colonial legacies but Pasko is Filipino, carrying elements of a precolonial and colonial past while continuing to evolve and adapt.
Even the term “Pasko” is one of those Filipino-Spanish terms, with Angelo Mercado, a classics professor at Grinnell College observing in his blog, Sauvage Noble, that the Spaniards used “Pascua” to mean an important feast, differentiated into Pascua de Navidad (feast of the Nativity, or Christmas) and Pascua de Resurrecion for Easter. Spaniards seem to have dropped Pascua from Christmas (Feliz Navidad means “happy Christmas”) while Filipinos ran off with Pascua, transforming it into Pasko and Christmas. (Easter is still, sometimes, Pasko ng Pagkabuhay.)
How did we get to this point of such a protracted and important Christmas, and why?
Cultures throughout the world have yearend festivities, marking a transition from the old into the new. Pasko fulfills that function for Filipinos, and more. Life often being harsh and difficult for so many Filipinos, the “ber” months become all the more important as a time for renewed hope and a time to draw strength from loved ones.
December is still the core of this Pasko, the first half devoted more to public commitments and displays and the last half to our private lives, to more intimate social circles.
The first half is the frenzied one, a time to revalidate social networks. It’s one office and school party after another with exchange gifts. It’s endless gift lists of business associates, customers as well as bonuses and tips for the mailman, newspaper (usually the Inquirer) delivery boy, garbage collectors. We borrowed the Spanish term aguinaldo for all this, the word referring to year-end gifts and bonuses and, in some Latin American countries, musical gifts.
On the darker side, we see ritualized extortion, street beggars and wipe-your-windshield boys, gangs of carolers who sound more like cats in heat and government workers calling out, “Merry Christmas,” as a way of saying pay up or something will happen to you. It’s become so bad that some government offices, notably immigration, has banned the Christmas greeting because it has come to mean, “Bribe me.”
It’s the demands of the first half of December that led to a four-month Christmas, September to November being the opportunity for businesses to cash in on the gift-giving needs of individuals and companies.
The “giving imperative” is often reciprocal, reaffirming who our friends are (and, more opportunistically, who we need) but Pasko is also a time of intense competition, including the kinds of hastily purchased giveaways.
The parties and bonuses remind anthropologists of tribal precolonial practices of chiefs hosting feasts, giving out food and gifts, the more extravagant the better to display one’s wealth and influence.
Our Christmas competitions extend into all kinds of contests among departments and divisions in schools and offices, with awards for the best belen, best caroling team, best lanterns. The belen became a larger-than-life tableau at Manila COD Department Store for several years and after that stopped, Greenhills Shopping Center revived it. Although it now has new themes and new technologies, people still talk about going to see the “COD.”
Lantern-making has become a major industry in Pampanga, with all kinds of designs using capiz casings and electronic lights, and the kinds of Pampanga parol used in homes and offices, complemented by all kinds of dazzling lights, have become ways of showing off by homes and offices. Over at the University of the Philippines Diliman, a lantern parade-cum-competition now attracts thousands of people to watch as colleges compete with their giant lanterns, often nonmounted on vehicles with generators.
Pasko does become more sedate after Simbang Gabi, as activities are oriented more toward family and close friends, with family reunions, special gifts and grand meals reserved for clan reunions. Filipino-style, Christmas takes on elements of Valentine’s, a time to declare, “Pasko na, sinta ko.”
And if the first half of Christmas included a darker side of extortion, this second half, Christmas Day in particular, is also a time for search-and-destroy missions as godchildren look for their elusive ninongs and ninangs. Yes, there’s a Christmas carol too, “Mano po, ninong” (and ninang).
This last half of December, and of the year, has become all the more important with so many Filipino families separated by distance, whether the household helper from some rural village working in the big city or one of the nine million Filipinos living and working overseas.
The global diaspora is going to reshape Pasko. There are Christmas carols talking about spending Christmas alone; for example, Ryan Cayabyab’s “Anong Gagawin Mo Ngayong Pasko?” Some overseas Filipinos would have scrimped and saved enough to be able to return home. There will be much excitement around the “balikbayan” boxes they bring in but even more excitement marks the welcoming of the person carrying home the pasalubong/aguinaldo.
Alas, those visits are always too short and Christmas becomes a time of sad goodbyes. Yet lucky are those Filipinos who do get home. Many other overseas Filipinos will celebrate Christmas away from home and for them, the Christmas carols, Simbang Gabi, noche buena are ways of recreating happy (and happier) back home.
We do find ways to bridge the distance, Pasko also being a time for texting Christmas greetings, for long-distance calls and, lately, for Internet calls, preferably with webcams so one can see (and gossip) about relatives. It’s these electronic reunions that might well become the best Christmas gifts for many Filipinos separated from loved ones, yet finding greater strength and hope in Christmas, in Pasko.
Simbang Gabi on the Internet? Why not, but it’d still be different without the bibingka, puto bumbong and the crowds.