In the centuries-old carol “The 12 Days of Christmas,” celebrations span less than two weeks.
Today Christmas is regularly celebrated throughout December, and in some places, a good portion of November too.
But four months of festivities in the Philippines gives new meaning to the term “holiday season.”
The ‘ber’ months
Christmas is celebrated during the “ber” months, as it’s called in the Philippines — that is, September, October, November and December, said Robert Blancaflor, president of the Manila-based events design company Robert Blancaflor Group.
“Christmas is the longest celebrated season in the Philippines and … our country celebrates it the longest globally,” he said. “Can you imagine a whole nation willingly sharing warmth and love … this long?”
But the parties don’t end in December.
“Christmas fever starts on Sept. 1 and ends the first week of January,” said Marot Nelmida-Flores, a professor of Philippine studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
This is, however, “a recent phenomenon,” she said. And the reason why is a familiar one.
Commercialization of the holiday
“With the proliferation of shopping malls, first in metro Manila which later on mushroomed far into the provinces, Christmas carols started to be heard soon after All Saints Day [on] Nov. 1,” said Joven Cuanang, a neurologist and respected art and culture enthusiast in the Philippines. “This was to attract people to start shopping for Christmas gifts — it was commerce-driven.”
Retail stores pushing out Christmas-themed merchandise earlier than in the past is responsible for so-called “Christmas creep” in many countries. A significant difference is that while others condemn the practice, Filipinos largely embrace it.
“Filipinos start to make parol, or Christmas lanterns, as early as September,” said Nelmida-Flores. “Now, many parts of the islands have their own trademark parol and Christmas theme plazas and parks.”
Another factor which adds to seasonal cheer, said Nelmida-Flores, is the return of the “balikbayan” — the estimated 2.2 million Filipino citizens who work abroad, according to the Philippines Statistics Authority. Overseas Filipino workers sent nearly $30 billion dollars back to the Philippines in 2020, which represents nearly 10% of the country’s total gross domestic product, according to data website Statista.
That likely won’t happen this year. Many of the overseas workers, who live in places like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong, aren’t traveling this year due to the global pandemic.
Marites Rheme Lopez Javier, who has been living and working in Singapore for 18 years, hasn’t seen her family in the Philippines since 2019. She plans to celebrate Christmas with them, including her first grandchild born last month, via video chat.
Javier said radio stations begin to play English and Tagalog Christmas songs in September. This is also when decorations — including Christmas trees — go up. Festivals and beauty pageants, a controversial yet wildly popular activity in the Philippines, start in October, she said.
She said as a child her family made their Christmas tree from manila paper and cardboard. Now, inexpensive plastic trees are the norm in her village.
When asked if she feels there’s “too much Christmas” in the Philippines, the 45-year-old native of Luzon island said, “No, we enjoy it! It’s a very happy time.”
Shifting celebrations earlier
The Peninsula Manila used to light its 45-foot Christmas tree in early November, but “we’ve moved it a tad earlier to the second Friday of October,” said Mariano Garchitorena, the hotel’s director of public relations.
He said “there’s no reason for delaying Christmas, since Christmas is always a good idea,” adding that this is what “any good Filipino, like myself, would say.”
The hotel includes al fresco dining in its holiday plans “to take advantage of the nippy weather,” said Garchitorena. The average temperature in Manila in December is 25 C (78 F), according to Climate-Data.org.
Nina Halley, founder of the Manila floral and décor company The Love Garden, said she starts receiving Christmas orders in July.
“Philippines is very much influenced by the West, particularly the U.S.,” said Halley. “So the same pines and cypresses, pinecones and dried oranges are heavily used in our décor. Believe it or not, we import fir trees … from Europe.”
A nation of faith
Religion is the foundation of the Philippines’ long festive period, said Blancaflor, adding that “the country is celebrating [its] 500th year of Christianity” this year.
Some 92% of people in the Philippines are Christian, according to the Stanford School of Medicine. Among the population of 110 million, more than 80% identify as Roman Catholic — a figure greater than that of Italy.
Some 88% of Filipinos said they were very or moderately religious, according to a 2020 survey by the Philippines social research institution, Social Weather Stations.
Many of the devout engage in the tradition of Simbang Gabi, a nine-day period of pre-dawn mass attendance that lasts from Dec. 16 to 24, said Blancaflor. The practice is thought to have been introduced by Spanish missionaries in the 17th century.
This used to mark the start of Christmas, said Cuanang, who recalled participating as a child: “Every dawn for nine days, we would huddle in the chill, going to church, culminating in the midnight mass on Christmas Eve.”
Back then, celebrations were only about three weeks long, he said.
“Most people of my generation find the four-month period a little too long,” said 81-year-old Cuanang.
What so much celebrating says about the culture
“Filipinos are a happy people,” said Halley, who added that her fellow citizens will find “any reason to celebrate and prepare food, gather around a table, sing, dance and be merry.”
Blancaflor said the Christmas season highlights the best traits of the Filipino people: hospitality, generosity, creativity and dedication to family.
Most importantly, he said, Christmas showcases the culture’s devotion to helping one another.
Poverty levels climbed to nearly 24% earlier this year, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. That translates to more than 26 million people who live below the poverty threshold of 12,082 Philippine pesos per month ($242) for a family of five.
The country, comprising some 7,100 islands, is also prone to typhoons. On average, it’s hit by 20 a year, five of which are destructive, according to the Asian Disaster Reduction Center.
“Filipinos are quick to respond and channel the Christmas spirit to urgently [help] affected people above all else,” said Blancaflor. “One of the most beautiful things about the Filipinos [is] being able to smile through the downside of life and still be thankful amidst obstacles — knowing there will be a better day.”