Philippine Holiday Traditions

It is quite embarrassing to think that for the past 21 years, I’ve been celebrating Christmas and it took quite a while for me to realize I’ve been taking it for granted. For the past two years or so, I quite hated Christmas, for I’d always equate it with stress, materialism and commercialization. But my parents loved it, and they loved all the things packaged with Christmas. Why do they love it so?

This Christmas break, my family had the chance to savour (literally and figuratively) the season in four provinces: Pampanga (my hometown), Cagayan Valley, Nueva Ecija and Ilocos.


How lucky I am to be brought up in San Fernando, the Christmas Capital of the Philippines! Image Credit: BSY 15.

Though all up north separated by large distances, these places have some practices in common: presence of misa de gallo (or simbang gabi) in the majority of churches and chapels; the viand-heavy Noche Buena table; and the presence of colorful lights, Christmas trees and everything that is associated with the festive holiday mood.

I have never completed the 15-day simbang gabi but I met a number of people who have attended it religiously because of a wish that was granted to them, and/or a wish they want to be favoured by the Lord. They say it’s a form of “panata” or quite roughly, sacrifice, as a sign of thanksgiving and of repentance.

Westerners are often surprised at the Sunday mass attendance of Filipinos. Wait ’til they see how it is during Simbang Gabi! Image Credit: Blooming Garden.

What I think is the most interesting is the Noche Buena table. Though full of food, tables from different towns and provinces have stark differences in what they call “special.” But just the same, these “special” foods all seem to have stories to tell and can call their own.

In San Fernando, Pampanga, favourite Christmas foods include sweetened ham (it has to be Pampanga’s Best!) and homemade embotido. The Kapampangan table is very full of desserts, but the ones that stand out are tibok-tibok and pastillas made from carabao’s milk. If not made from this milk, they are not considered “special.”

 Spanish-influenced Christmas ham– made even sweeter to suit the Filipino palate. Image Credit: Casa Veneracion.

In Tuguegarao, Cagayan Valley, we were able to eat in three different houses, and apparently, all of them served adobong baboy ramo, which they consider the most “special” of all dishes. There were a lot of alcoholic drinks served, especially San Miguel Beer and red wine. Cagayan, my uncle says, has one of the highest and lowest temperatures consistently recorded in the country, so they take advantage of the cold weather by drinking a lot to bring in heat. I’ve observed that there were no desserts served; only alcohol after meals.

In Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija, where we celebrated Christmas this year, the Noche Buena table is full of family recipes that go down even to the great grandmother of my grandmother! Family recipes include ham, fruit cake, stuffed turkey or duck (last year they had turkey, this year, duck—whichever is available), and jarros valenciana. Whenever we go around among our relatives doing “pamasko,” old family recipes are served together with new ones made by the 4th and 5th generations.

For example, while my Lola Patty is known for her fruitcakes, her grandchildren are known for making chocolate lollipops. While my Mommy Nina (she’s my grandma never wanting to be called “lola”) is known for her ambrosia and fruit salad, one of her grandchildren is known for making peach-mango cake. As far as I can remember, these foods are never served without the other. My Mommy Nina says that these recipes symbolize traditions that the family doesn’t want to forget. She adds that these recipes also symbolize respect, both for the old and the young. When she was young, she used to make fruit salad while her lola made smoked ham.


 Christmas will never be complete without the generations-old fruitcake recipe. Image Credit: Blooming Garden.

In Laoag, Ilocos Norte, the Noche Buena table, I believe, is not far from the daily fare. My dad, being born and raised there, agrees to this observation, except, he says, for the addition of tupig (for the upper and middle class) or tinubong (for the lower class, since it is cheaper to make). Both are sweetened sticky rice. My dad has very fond memories of Ilokano Christmas because he says, you’d know it’s Christmas because every home would smell of the sweet cooking aroma of this delicacy.

The Ilokano table is mainly filled with vegetable dishes, with igado (menudo-like) as the main meat dish. Desserts include watermelons, bananas, rice-based delicacies like tupig, calti or dudol, and fruit salad (which is actually macaroni salad, but is otherwise called fruit salad), which is considered “special.”

Interestingly, I’ve been in five different houses in Laoag, and all of them served watermelons and bananas for dessert. My Lola Lily says there’s not much difference from what she had for Noche Buena as a teenager. She says most Ilokanos grew up eating vegetables and you cannot take that away from the Ilokano table. Only, during Christmas, several vegetable-based dishes are served.


Ilocos, with its vegetable-heavy Noche Buena feast, is an exception in the meat-loving culture of Filipinos. Image Credit: Filipino Taste.

Although my family travels a lot during the break, we always make sure that we celebrate New Year at home. My dad says it could mean bad luck for the entire year if one fails to celebrate New Year at home, because it shows a lack of interest in taking care of one’s household.

Each year too, my mom never fails to complete a basketful of 13 round fruits, even going to the extent of covering large distances just to get a hold of that round, “lucky” fruit, thought to symbolize money. My dad thinks otherwise, saying that in this day and age, it’d be better to get a grab of rectangular-shaped fruits which symbolize greater-valued bills.

My family used to wear polka dotted shirts, but now, we opt for bright shirts and/or those with rectangular shapes, which symbolize, respectively, a bright year ahead and, well, more cash. We do not really follow strict guidelines for our New Year clothes; it’s more of a personal choice of my Dad or Mom, whichever is a “need” for the coming year. Probably by next year, we would rather wear green to symbolize dollar bills (!)


Wearing polka dots to welcome the new year used to be the norm. It may have to change now with coins barely able to buy anything of value. Image Credit: Herrieson.

By January 1, my dad firmly believes that the first person to enter the house should not be a woman, more so a pregnant woman. The lucky “first” should also not wear black—“lucky” because he would be given P500. Just last year, our first visitor was a woman wearing a black shirt, and lo and behold, she had to wait outside for a male to come over.

The holidays this year are missing quite a few “specials” I’ve always looked forward to: puto bumbong and bibingka bought outside the church, now replaced by popcorn, cotton candy, fish balls and ice scramble; my late great grandma’s meringue which was never equalled despite numerous attempts of replicating it; and what I miss the most, Christmas carols.

I have very fond memories of carolling with my siblings and playmates around the village, singing carols with the wrong lyrics, racing with street dogs, and splitting up the night’s “salary.” I find it an essential part of growing up, for it reinforces the camaraderie among relatives, friends and neighbours. My dad says he feels sad that only a few kids do carolling today, which seems reserved for poor kids as an excuse for alms-begging, and for church choir members as a form of fund-raising. He used to do carols with his siblings in Laoag, serenading first their godparents, then their parents’ friends, then random households who seem to be awake at that time. Tupig and candy are the common giveaways, but for godchildren, money is also given.

 Tupig: a famous treat for carolers in Ilocos. Image Credit: Kimbo Titoy.

The holiday season seems to be an excuse to eat and drink more, to give and to ask, to make mistakes and to forgive, and to be at peace with each other. But most of all, this season gives a special reason for families to settle down and to be together, even for just a short time. And with my hardworking parents who seem to take no day-offs from their work, the holidays would always be the most awaited time of the year. It simply makes the world a saner place to live in.