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Pinoy Kasi

Christmas old and new

/ 11:34 PM December 25, 2012

The Inquirer recently featured photographs of three local Christmas trees made of recycled materials, an encouraging sign of growing awareness of environmental conservation.

I’ve seen other “green” trees around Metro Manila. The Ateneo medical school, for example, has one made of recycled water bottles. Over at St. Scholastica’s College Manila, they had a  belen-making competition, again emphasizing recycling. The winning entry was one made of recycled CDs.

The recycled Christmas trees and  belen  also reminded me of how Christmas goes beyond traditions to bring in new elements. This is certainly not something limited to the 21st century, the mixing and matching dating back to the Spaniards, who brought in Christmas together with Christianity.


The Inquirer recently published a letter from economist and historian Benito Legarda Jr. observing how the term  “Misa  de  Gallo” is now popularly interchanged with “Simbang  Gabi,” the dawn Masses leading to Christmas, when originally the term was specifically for the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The older term for the  Simbang  Gabi  was  Misas  de  Aguinaldo.

I was myself surprised, all this time thinking  Misa  de  Gallo  was synonymous with  Simbang  Gabi, and had used the term in an article about the Filipino Christmas, published by the Inquirer last Dec. 16.

Legarda mentioned checking with the Real Academia de Española (Royal Spanish Academy), which has an online Spanish dictionary (, which got me researching into all kinds of linguistic changes around Christmas in the Philippines. It was there, for example, where I found that another term for  belen  (or nativity scene) is “nacimiento.”  (“Belen” itself comes from Bethlehem, where Christ was born.)

For today’s column I also used “Pasko,” an anthology of essays edited by Cid Reyes (with great art design by Ige Ramos) published in 1994. That year may not seem too long ago, but reading through the essays I could already sense some major changes in our  Pasko  (Christmas). It was while reading through “Pasko” that I found an unexpected lead for glimpses into Christmas in the past. This was Rizal’s novel “El Filibusterismo,” which has several chapters with references to Christmas.

In my earlier article, I mentioned that the term “Pasko” itself had been transformed from its original Spanish word. You won’t find  Pasko  or  Pasco  in the RAE dictionary. Instead you have  Pascua, which mainly refers to Easter. The RAE dictionary does have two entries that help explain why we call our Christmas  Pasko. One RAE definition of  Pascua  is: “Each of the ceremony (solemnities) of the birth of Christ, of the recognition and adoration of the Magi and of the arrival of the Holy Spirit.”  The other one has a clearer link to our  Pasko: the time from the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the day of the Kings (Three Kings), inclusive. Filipinos tweaked  Pascua, mainly by preponing (I’m using a Hindi-English term, which means doing something earlier—you know, instead of “postponing”) it earlier and earlier until it covered all the “ber” months.

The word “aguinaldo” is in the RAE dictionary, defined as Christmas gifts, as well as gifts that are given during other festive occasions.  Aguinaldo  has taken all kinds of new meanings in different parts of the Hispanic world, including a Christmas box and a yearend bonus.

In addition,  aguinaldo  can refer to “villancico de Navidad” or religious hymns sung during Christmas.  The  aguinaldo  can refer to the songs, as well as to the gifts given to people singing these  villancicos.  The singing of the   villancicos  in the Philippines has long given way to “caroling,” or what resembles it. Sung well, there is charm when you hear “Sa  maybahay  ang  aming  bati,  Meri  Krismas…” but caroling has now sadly become a way for street urchins to threaten motorists: Give, or we’ll continue with our singing.

Rizal’s Christmas


Rizal had an interesting take on how 19th-century Filipino children, the upper-class ones at least, might have looked at Christmas with “instinctive dread” because they had to be dressed up in “high silk shoes, big hats, woolen or velvet suits, without overlooking four or five scapularies” and were then “carried to the high Mass, where for almost an hour they are subjected to the heat and the human smells from so many crowding, perspiring people, and if they are not made to recite the rosary they must remain quiet, bored, or asleep.”

The ordeal did not end there. Rizal said the children were then “dragged from house to house to kiss their relatives’ hands. There they have to dance, sing, and recite all the amusing things they know, whether in the humor or not, whether comfortable or not in their fine clothes, with the eternal pinching and scoldings if they play any of their tricks. Their relatives give them  cuartos  which their parents seize upon and of which they hear nothing more.”  (Cuartos  are quarter coins.)

I don’t know how many of you went into hiding yesterday to avoid your godchildren, but think of Rizal’s insightful observations from the viewpoint of the children, which probably still hold true today.  Talking about these visits to various  ninong  and  ninang, a form of Christmas extortion that has become more common in recent years is for adults to approach you on the street, towing a child or two, and claiming that they came all the way from Bulacan, or Pampanga, or even Tarlac, unsuccessfully looking for their kids’ godparents and now needing money to get back home.


There is one tradition that seems to have disappeared, originally called “Las Posadas (the inn)” and transformed into the  Panunuluyan, a street pageant enacting Joseph and Mary’s search for lodgings. Nick Joaquin wrote a charming account of one such  Panunuluyan  in Makati, with a  carroza  going around town with images of Mary and Joseph. Old women and young girls would sing, accompanied by fiddle, flute and guitar. They would stop at a large house to inquire about lodgings and a man would peek out of the window and proclaim, “Isang  lalaking  marungis,  isang  babaeng  buntis,” and send them away. (Joaquin wrote that those are “two of the most moving lines in Philippine folk poetry,” and I agree.)

There’s a happy ending, of course, to the  Panunuluyan, with Joseph and Mary eventually finding a place in the church.

There’s more to document about Christmas in the Philippines, including the many variations across the country. The anthology “Pasko” has an article by Ma. Velarde Roboldal about how, in Punta Cruz, Maribojoc, Bohol, Christmas extends from Dec. 16 to Feb. 2, with combined caroling and Panunuluyan  called “ige-ige.”

One terribly negative development in our Christmas is the way people end up jostling and fighting with each other or with vendors in overcrowded malls and bazaars. We should revive traditions like the   Panunuluyan, which is really a street play with important messages about hospitality. Or we can propagate new ones like environment-friendly Christmas trees and  belen. Old or new, these practices emphasize community celebration, one faithful to the spirit of the season.

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TAGS: Christmas, Customs and Traditions, History, Michael tan, opinion, Pinoy Kasi
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