Filipino Christmas: Christ vs Santa
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - December 22, 2019 - 12:00am

There is an ongoing struggle between a cultural Christmas and a religious or spiritual Christmas. For example, who is the most authentic symbol for Christmas – Santa Claus with a bagful of gifts riding a reindeer-driven sled; or, the baby Jesus in a manger in a poor stable. Right now, my impression is that Santa Claus is winning this propaganda  war.

I think most people will agree with me that Christmas has become more of a commercial festival  rather than a religious celebration which is, of course, its original intention. Even in non-Christian countries like Japan, South Korea and Singapore, this season has become a major festival. A Korean acquaintance of mine told me that many Buddhists like him exchange gifts on Christmas; and, Santa Claus is a popular figure in South Korea.

In the folklore of the Western world, the spirit of hospitality and generosity is not symbolized by the innkeeper and the three wise men during the miracle of the birth of Christ but by a  jolly fat man with a white beard wearing a red jacket. There was a popular essay in America – “Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus” – which ended by saying – “ Thank God there is a Santa Claus.” However, the idea that Christmas would not be the same without a Santa Claus comes close to being a sacrilegious message.

America is the center of capitalism in a world where Christmas sales have become a critical factor in the economy.  There would be no capitalist significance to the image of a poor carpenter’s child born in an animal stable surrounded by a group of poor shepherds. One can only imagine what would happen to the retail and luxury industry if the image of Christmas shifted from that of a Santa with a bag of unnecessary luxury gifts and toys to that of Christ being born Man in order to save a sinful world.

Filipino  vs. Elite Christmas

It is true that there is no Christmas in the world like a Filipino Christmas.The main reason is that outside the exclusive Western-centric gated subdivisions , our people still practice many of the traditional customs. The real Filipinos (unlike the Westernized elite) still take the birth of Christ extremely seriously. It begins on Dec. 16 with the first of the nine dawn masses or Misa de Gallo (Mass at Cock’s Crow). It ends on the first Sunday of January which is the Feast of the Three Kings.

Even the symbols are different. The rich vie for the best looking Christmas tree (preferably pine) and replicas of Santa, his sled and reindeers. In the typical Filipino household the most popular symbols are the Christmas star or parol and the Nativity scene or belen.

Tasting the Filipino Christmas

This is the best essay on the Filipino Christmas I have read. It was written by Doreen Gamboa Fernandez, food critic and a prolific writer and researcher on Philippine culture. Here are some excerpts from her essay:

“ For food is at the center of the Philippine Christmas...The food must be shared because community and family feeling are at the core of the Filipino Christmas. More important than what is eaten is the fact of eating together, of the coming home of sons working in Saudi Arabia, daughters who are nurses in the United States, and of whole sets of cousins and brethren from whatever part of the world has sheltered them before Christmas. 

“Come, therefore, friend or colleague and savor Christmas with us. Wake with us in the chilly dawn when the bells ring and walk to Church for mass joyous with music, sometimes including castanets and violin. Share the children’s anticipation of the food to follow:  the bibingka of rice flour, carabao cheese and salted eggs cooking in aromatic banana leaves on coal; the puto bumbong steaming out of upright bamboo tubes to be eaten with grated coconut and sugar; the hot salabat, the ginger said to enhance the singing voice and save the throat, given free to all comers, shapes and textures depending on the region – or may hold, as well as arroz caldo, a chicken-and-rice congee of Chinese origin. 

“The Noche Buena or ‘Night of Goodness’ is to the Filipino not just Christmas Eve, to which the term refers to, but also specifically, the meal shared by the family after the midnight mass. It is called media noche meaning midnight because in some families no one is allowed to eat till after midnight mass, one fasts, especially  from meat, for this Christmas morning feast. It is not usually shared with guests, only with the nuclear family, the very closest and the dearest.

“... Yes, Christmas is family time and its food comes from family traditions...Christmas is one of the Filipinos’ most precious statements of what they are.” 

I remember a childhood growing up in the province where the Christmas season was a time for hot chocolate, tocino made from carabao meat, tinapa prepared and smoked by my mother in the backyard and the kare-kare with peanut sauce. 

I hope and pray that in our country, Santa Claus pretending to make toys in the North Pole will never replace the belen as the principal symbol of Christmas. After all, the real meaning of Christmas lies in the miraculous birth of Baby Jesus to poor, working class parents in a small barrio in Palestine.

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