Christmas traditions from the Philippines

Published 8:26 pm Monday, December 22, 2014

By Chris Quilpa

Happy holidays! It’s that time of year again to celebrate and commemorate the nativity of Jesus Christ, who was born in a manger, later suffered and died for our sake, and was then resurrected to give us hope in life.

Immigrants and naturalized U.S. citizens like me may have become accustomed to the western ways of living. But wherever we may be, we still carry in our hearts the cultures and traditions of our youth.

Email newsletter signup

As Christmas draws near, I love to recall Christmas traditions from back home in the Philippines.

As early as September, shopping malls and stores start hanging Christmas decorations and playing Christmas songs. Houses are getting ready for Christmas family reunions. Civic groups begin brainstorming to try to raise funds by caroling from house to house and business to business. Churches see more attendance.

These activities run through the Feast of Three Kings, the first week of January.

In a Filipino household, you’ll likely see a star “parol” (a Spanish word meaning lantern or lamp) or Christmas lantern hanging or displayed distinctly in one’s house.

This symbolizes the star over Bethlehem, the one that guided the three wise men to the stable where our Lord Jesus Christ was born.

The traditional five-pointed star lantern was made of bamboo sticks, cellophane and colored rice paper, commonly called “papel de Hapon” or Japanese paper. In the middle of the “parol” is a platform where a candle or two — or a small coconut-oil lamp — illuminates the lantern.

Now, the Christmas parol takes different forms and designs, from simple five-pointed stars to colorful ones illuminated by kaleidoscopic electric lights.

Originally the parol was used not as a Christmas decoration but to light the way for those going to church for dawn masses, known as “Misa de Gallo” or “Rooster’s Mass.”

The Christmas tradition of “Simbang Gabi” is a series of nine consecutive dawn masses that starts Dec. 16 and ends Christmas Eve. It has been adopted by a lot of Catholic churches in different dioceses, including those of Richmond, Arlington and Washington, D.C.

Another tradition is this “Noche Buena” on Christmas Eve. On this festive night, family and friends gather together around a dining table laden with food — lechon, or roasted pig; pancit, or Chinese lo mien noodles; lumpia, or egg rolls; bibingka, or rice cakes; adobo; arroz caldo; macaroni; spaghetti; fruit salad and more.

We enjoy food, friendship and fellowship, and we also exchange gifts, sing Christmas carols and play games. We go caroling from house to house, bringing glad tidings of “peace on Earth, goodwill to men.”

On Christmas Day, we attend Christmas mass, then eat leftover food. Children go to their godparents’ homes to receive gifts. Other groups and families continue their partying and getting together with relatives near or far. Others go to the mall or to the movies.

Christmas is a season of joy and hope, a time for family and friends getting together, sharing their joy and blessings.

From my family to yours, merry Christmas and happy holidays!

Chris A. Quilpa, a retired U.S. Navy veteran, lives in northern Suffolk. Email him at