Well the biggest holiday of the year has come and gone and one must wonder… how does one celebrate Christmas, known as Pasko here, in the Philippines?
Here the Christmas season started months ago, on September 1st to be exact, the first day of the ‘-ber’ months (no, not ‘brrr’ as in ‘I’m cold’ as I initially thought). From then on, Pasko has slowly been trickling into our lives… but it’s not like Christmas in America (or many other countries, I would imagine). Instead of carolers singing a capella or merrily ringing bells, here they may appear at our door with a small handmade guitar, ukulele, or a unique set of bongos and whistles. I’ve been hearing Christmas music everywhere but rather than in stores or cafes, I hear it from the videoke machines of neighboring houses as I walk through the village. There are no traditional flavors of the season, no gingerbread or pumpkin spiced everything, but there is a lot of pork; whole roast pigs, pork stew, pork roast, crispy parata, pork liver (I don’t think I knew there were so many ways to cook a pig) and an array of fresh shellfish in my town (bad luck for the Jewish girl). And there are decorations and Christmas trees in one form or another – bright and colorful, adorned with tinsel and lights, but a lack of snowflakes and snowmen and I haven’t smelled a real pine in quite some time.
The Christmas season really kicked into full gear on December 16th when Catholic families all over the Philippines head to the first of 9 early morning masses, known as the Novina masses. Attendees of these 4.30am (or earlier) masses make a wish before the first mass and attend each mass until Christmas for the wish to come true. I had heard about December 16th a few weeks prior, but when the morning came, it had slipped my mind. I went for my usual run and found a crowd of people outside the Church, filling the parking lot and lining the streets around it. The Municipal Hall across the way was bright and alive with newly adorned Christmas lights. I had walked into a tropical winter wonderland.
That evening I attended my first Filipino Christmas party; a work party hosted yearly by the local government unit (LGU). The cultural center was lined with long food-filled tables on three sides, one table for each department (agriculture, market, HR, etc.). Every table had its own lechon, among a variety of other traditional dishes. Our table had lots of fresh seafood—crabs, snails, grilled fish—as we have several fishermen employed within our department. Each department sat in rows behind their tables and watched the Christmas program: the mayor gave an address, there was a raffle full of useful household items (including several 5lb bags of rice!) and each department did a dance routine (yes, even mine)! We feasted into the later hours of the evening and then the lights were turned low and the music was turned up and the real dancing began. When a few hours later, the lights came back on and the music screeched to a halt, I found myself wishing that the night wasn’t over…
As Christmas Day neared, I noticed both parallels and differences between the American and Filipino holiday rushes. The workers in my local supermarket were donning Santa hats, the lines to check out warranted the bringing of a book, and somehow I was hearing even more Christmas music. But unlike in America where consumerism has taken over much of the holiday, buying presents wasn’t really central to the holiday. The biggest themes of Pasko were food and prayer; Filipinos thank God at the beginning of every meal and every meeting and it was impossible to go anywhere without food being present. There is lots of smiling and laughing and eating, just like in the States but also plenty of videoke and dancing of the cha-cha. So at the same time that things are different, things are kind of the same… we spent time with family and close friends, we overindulged our stomachs and tested our wallets, one way or another.
Two days before Christmas, I was blessed with the arrival of two fellow volunteer friends, Kevin and Idalis, a married couple in my batch serving as university educators in North Samar. It was so great to see familiar faces I hadn’t seen in three months! We sat at a dockside restaurant and swapped storied of service; the difficulties and the treasures. On December 24th, Kevin, Idalis, my office mates and I attended a barangay fiesta in the neighboring town. We were offered lechon and pork seven ways and we sat and ate in the beautiful, green garden of my friend’s house. As I don’t eat pork, I was given a half a chicken, literally plucked and grilled for me upon arrival—a very kind and heart-warming gesture from people who hardly know me but are considerate enough to accommodate my foreign food requirements. And I ate the chicken heartily – beak, head and claw still attached.
After a couple hours, we hop in a trike and move on to the next home to do it all over again. Later that evening the fiesta will continue with dancing and activities in the barangay center but Kevin, Idalis and I returned home for a Christmas Eve dinner with my host family – quite possibly the 17th meal of the day. After dinner, Nanay acts like Santa Clause and hands out one gift to everyone in the family, each of them thoughtful and practical; I get a much needed new towel. We danced cha-cha and sang videoke until it was time for the final mass of the Novina at 10pm. When we arrive, the church is full to the brim and people are setting up plastic chairs (brought from home) all around the parking lot. We stay for some time, but sleep beckons us early and we don’t make it to the midnight feast that is promised after mass; after a long day of feasting, the comfort of my bed trumps the ability to eat any more food!
On Christmas morning, instead of opening presents under a tree, we headed out the door for a little adventure. Nine of us pile into my kuya’s multicab and were on our way to find the Batungay Caves and Kaliwasan falls in a neighboring municipality. After what seemed like endless turns on jungle-lined dirt roads, we end up at a breathtaking sites, where I’ll just let the photos do the talking:
After the waterfall, another big lunch, and a much needed nap we were ready for the final Christmas feast of the weekend: the family reunion. Family from all around came to my host family’s house where Nanay was clearly the matriarch of the clan. We ate a huge feast of delicious foods… my favorite was a local scallop steamed in garlic butter. I attempted to make a chocolate bark for dessert but chocolate in the Philippines is made not to melt so upon heating, it turned soft and lumpy. I ended up making a bowl of ‘chocolate mess’ (as I appropriately named it) a blend of white and milk chocolate, raisins, marshmallows, and graham crackers. It was so hideous to me, I didn’t even take a photo but halfway through the night, it was gone – I guess, appearances truly aren’t everything!
When dinner was over, nearly 40 of us were sat outside in the garden, singing videoke, dancing the cha-cha barefoot in the grass, and watching the kids play parlor games. Filipinos have great party games for both kids and adults; although I’m pretty sure the kids’ games were more entertainment for the adults anyway! One game was a relay in which the kids raced while carrying plates tucked under their armpits, between their legs, and in the crook of their necks… another involved placing a Bingo (the Filipino equivalent of an Oreo) on the kids’ foreheads and watching them attempt to get the cookie in their mouth without using their hands. Both had us all in hysterical fits of laughter, screaming and shouting and cheering them on. One of my other favorite activities of the evening was the gift swap; something familiar to me from Christmas’s spent with friends in the States. Here it was a remarkably organized exchange of 27 adult gifts and 11 children ones, my Kuya meticulously numbering and ordering each gift as they were received (we also had a 100P limit, ~2$ a gift). As the night winded down and the families with young children trickled out of the party, the videoke enthusiasts really got to work on their singing. I was forced into a few numbers including Feliz Navidad and Dancing Queen with Kevin and Idalis, much to our host’s entertainment, and eventually we bid each other one final ‘maayong pasko’ and said goodnight.
So Christmas has come and gone and it was quite the exciting explosion of culture – I won’t deny that I’m grateful for a 3-day work week and a long weekend ahead. I really enjoyed learning how Filipinos celebrate Christmas, especially as celebrating the holiday is quite new to me anyway. I’m Jewish and have had no reason to partake in the holiday, if it wasn’t for past boyfriends or friend’s inviting me into their homes the last few years. During this time of year, I celebrate Hannukah (though it has nothing to do with Christmas) which is based around a lunar calendar. This year it happened to start on Christmas Eve and will end New Years Day. I was especially excited for this overlap of holidays and the opportunity to share my culture with my host family and friends here; I even brought a small Hannukah menorah from Israel. But I’m sad to say it didn’t get used – I chickened out. Christmas was overwhelming and when I tried to explain Hannukah to my family, they were kind but skeptical and there were too many language, religious and cultural barriers to overcome. My menorah stayed in my room and I’ve been a bit downtrodden. But there are still a few more Hannukah nights and I am determined to celebrate one of them, whether it’s with my host family or some volunteer friends.
The holiday weekend highlighted to me the giant balancing act that is Peace Corps service. I am immersed in this incredible culture-rich journey, where I am learning and growing everyday from the people I meet and the challenges I face. And on the other side of the scale: I am away from friends and family and there are many times in which I must swallow my own pride, culture, or beliefs in order to fit in and serve this community. Some days, I can do the latter with ease and others it hits hard, somewhere deep inside of me. I guess, it makes sense to feel sentimental and somewhat ‘homesick’ around the holidays. Sorry to end the post on such a dire note – it really was an incredible holiday weekend. Happy holidays and a wonderful new year to all!
Much love and thank you for reading!