Friday, December 20, 2013

Pilipinas Christmas 2013

When we left Manila for the old hometown on Monday, 16th of December, people were on their way to church for the first simbang gabi, which is not really an evening mass but properly the misa de gallo when the roosters crow at dawn. On our way back early evening, we passed by churches celebrating truly simbang gabi probably for those who failed to join the early morning service.  Thus began the traditional nine-day devotional masses to culminate with what used to be the midnight mass of Christmas eve.

History tells us that the dawn masses were set up during the Spanish colonial times for the farmers who began toiling the croplands before sunrise.  When we were young in the province, getting up early for the mass was one great effort; the joy came when we went around town with the church choir serenading parish folks with local carols and Spanish villancicos after the mass.  As kid, our mother enticed us to go with them to the midnight mass so that we can see the “walking star,” actually a big lighted five-pointed star parol rolling down the rope from the choir loft to the belen at one side of the altar with all the church lights turned off.  Our father who was not a churchgoer attended the dawn masses though before boarding the commuter bus to his work at the U.S. naval base in Subic an hour away. 

We learned parol making when we were in primary school using bamboo strips to form the star, covering this with Japanese paper or colored cellophane, and from two star tips, we hang paper “tails”. The last time we fashioned star parols was at the Manila Center on Mission St. in San Francisco, CA for the first Parol Lantern Festival there in December 2003.

Through the years, the parol has morphed from the five-point pattern to various decorative structures associated with Christmas.  Houses, stores, town and city halls, and town and city streets brighten up with lighted parols in the evening. We treasured a smaller version of the San Fernando, Pampanga parol for several seasons until the colored wrapping started to fade. Of course, San Fernando glows with giant lanterns skilfully crafted by barangay artisans to dazzle spectators with a display of rhythmic changing of lighted colorful patterns. 

As an alumnus of the University of the Philippines, one knows that Christmas vacation is coming when a big white star parol glows behind the Oblation in the Diliman campus in the evening. The buzz starts for the much-awaited lantern parade held during the last week of classes when the faculty and students of different colleges and members of campus organizations carry lanterns that reflect the year's theme.  This year, it was “Maalab na Serbisyo Publiko ng Mapagkalingang Kampus” dedicated to the victims of typhoon Yolanda.  The lanterns were made of relief goods like T-shirts, slippers, canned goods, etc. all of which were collected for eventual distribution in the calamity areas. The College of Fine Arts contingent do not compete for 'bests' of several categories, they simply provide the climax of the event.  This year their lanterns were reflective of the cultural color of various indigenous peoples of the country.  

A College of Fine Arts lantern: a mythical bird.

One UP Diliman annual tradition we have missed since after graduation is the free annual Handel’s Messiah concert at the university theatre.  A good friend saved us from the no-ticket line last week when she came out of the theatre with a spare seating ticket.  It was labelled “a Christmas benefit concert for the calamity victims” and had the students who were relocated from the Tacloban campus to Diliman as special guests.  

For the first time, choral groups from Diliman, UP Manila and UP Los Baños came together for the Messian concert.  There were 270 voices all in all.  They did a choral rendition of “Kilos, Iskolar”, a hymn composed by Vernie de la Peña and lyrics by poet Reuel Aguila, which calls UP students and alumni to help rehabilitate the nation after the calamities.

We had an incidental Christmas treat at the Archdiocesan Archives in Intramuros before the last weekend.  It was the launching of the annual display of the belen collection of Fr. Genaro Diwa.  The manger scenes on exhibit vary in size and style, and definitely, they are far from the depiction done by St. Francis of Assisi who did the first one with a live ox and ass in Greccio in 1223. 

The Filipino belens are eye-catching in terms of costumes and interpretations.  One incorporates the Three Kings in Moro, Igorot and barong tagalog costumes.  Another has visitors around the manger representing various indigenous groups.  Another belen had us chuckling because there’s a group making lechon beside the manger scene.

The last one reminds that Philippine Christmas is one seasonal food trip for families and clans.  It is not unusual, for example, to see families in some communities coming out of the church during dawn masses to head straight for stalls selling hot bibingka (rice cakes) or puto bumbong for a breakfast of native fare.  Then comes the first feast, which is the noche buena held after the midnight mass of Christmas eve.  The big one is on Christmas Day when families in grand happy reunion gather around a festive lunch with a lechon as centerpiece usually.

One would think that the long Pilipinas Christmas that starts with the first –ber month of the year, September, ends on Christmas Day.  To the religious, it still extends to the feast of the Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas, according to the popular song, which for many years was fixed on the 6th of January.  Until now, three men of one barangay in our town costumed as the Three Kings Melchor, Gaspar and Baltazar lead the parade highlighting their fiesta on this day.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Somber Christmas celebration during the Spanish colonial times

From a few documents we've come across at the National Archives and the Archdiocesan Archives of Manila, it appears that there was not much fun on Christmas during the Spanish times.  Santa Claus, Christmas trees and other trimmings arrived with the Americans to become part of Pinoy culture in the first half of the 1900s.  Christmas shopping and Christmas parties were not part of our lifestyle then.  

The mood of the season was somber, the focus on the spiritual starting from the feast of the Immaculada Concepcion, patroness of the country and of the cathedral, on the 8th of December until the feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January. 

At the Manila Cathedral, they held 40 hours of jubilee for the Immaculate Conception.  The ordinates had specific assignments during the religious services from the 8th to the 10th of December.  In 1859, for example, ordinates Dn Jacinto Zamora and Dn Jose Burgos were assigned to keep watch before the Blessed Sacrament, Zamora on 9th December, 10:00-10:30 AM, and Burgos on the 10th, 6:30-7:00 AM.  The next year, they had the same assignments, Zamora during the early evening of the 8th and Burgos during the early morning shift. 

The religious mood can also be gleaned from the whole-page spread titled "Alegoria de la noche buena" in the 25 December 1875 issue of the El Oriente, an illustrated weekly on the sciences, literature, arts, etceteraThe upper part depicted the events of Christmas: the trip to Jerusalem, the nativity, the epiphany and escape to Egypt.  The lower portion depicted two men tending to a flock of turkeys, people going to church, and a group gathered around a dining table. Did the noche buenas of yore have turkeys in the menu? 

"Alegoria de la noche buena"

An inside section featured the cultos religiosos (religious services) that informed readers of the daily schedules of these services in the various churches inside the walled city from the 19th (Sunday) to the the 25th (Saturday), Christmas day.

Schedule of religious services, 19-25 December 1875.

 According to the schedule, the daily misa de aguinaldo would continue to be celebrated in the Intramuros and Santo Domingo churches starting at 4:30 and 5:00 o'clock in the morning, respectively.

On the 24th, there would be a vigil of the nativity, and Christians are asked to do fasting and abstinence on that day. 

Christmas day would begin with a sung mass in almost all the churches at midnight in celebration of the ineffable mystery of the birth of Jesus, sung with all solemnity before the matins.

There was a time in our religious history, in the 1680s, when the archbishop prohibited the celebration of the misa de aguinaldo because the masses were contaminated "with practices that were superstitious, and contrary to the holy rites of the church" (Sanchez et al, 1683-89).   

But around a century later, Fray Pedro Murillo Velarde (1749) was already writing about the nine-day early morning masses being sung with great solemnity.  

In 1885, Fray Pedro Rosell (1885) was describing to his superior the religious ceremonies being held "to honor the birth of our Blessing, Jesus."  He wrote of the celebration of the immaculate conception "a week beforehand" followed by "a daily mass of the [Virgin Mary]," which we read as the nine-day dawn misas de aguinaldo.

"On the last day or the vigil of the feast," Rosell continued, "a pleasing, although simple Belen was made at one side of the presbytery in which were placed the images of the Child, Mary, and Joseph. Christmas eve came, and at eleven o'clock the bells were rung loudly, and from half past eleven until twelve, a continual ringing of bells two at a time announced to the people that the mass called Gallo was to be celebrated in memory of that holy hour in which the eternal Son of God the Father, made man in the most pure entrails of the Virgin Mary willed to be born on that poor and abandoned manger threshold [portal de Belen]. Hence when twelve o'clock had struck, the missa-cantata was said, which was followed by the adoration of the holy Child. That was made enjoyable by the singing of some fine Christmas carols. The twenty-fifth dawned bright and joyful."

It's 2013, and Christmas remains bright and joyful with both religious and commercial trimmings.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

  • I.E.14 Libro de Gobierno Ecclesiastical (March 1846-May 1862).  Folder 2. Document 3044 (p. 194-198). Archdiocesan Archives of Manila.

  • I.E.14 Libro de Gobierno Ecclesiastical (October 1852 - May 1862), 20.  Folder 1. Doc. 3124 (p. 223).  Archdiocesan Archives of Manila.

  •  El Oriente (1875, Dec 25). Alegoria de noche buena and Cultos Religiosos. SDS-23337 El Oriente 1875-76. National Archives of the Philippines.

  • Sanchez, Juan, et al. (1683-89). Felipe Pardo as archbishop. The Pardo Controversy. The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898 : explorations by early navigators, etc. (Blair, E.H. & Robertson, J. A., Eds., Bourne, E.G., Tr.).   39(1):245-246. Mandaluyong, Rizal: Cachos Hermanos, 1973.  Retrieved from 
  • Velarde, P. M. (1749). Jesuit missions in the seventeenth century.  The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898 : explorations by early navigators, etc. (Blair, E.H. & Robertson, J. A., Eds., Bourne, E.G., Tr.).   44(1):108-109.  Mandaluyong, Rizal: Cachos Hermanos, 1973.  Retrieved from
  • Rosell, P. (1885, Apr 17). Letter from Father Pedro Rosell [S.J.] The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898 : explorations by early navigators, etc. (Blair, E.H. & Robertson, J. A., Eds., Bourne, E.G., Tr.).   43(1):225-228.  Mandaluyong, Rizal: Cachos Hermanos, 1973.  Retrieved from