Mark Louis F. FerrolinoSpecial Features Writer

As Christmas Day draws near, thousands of sparkling colorful lights and artistically crafted lanterns litter the country’s busy streets and narrow alleys. These common sights, together with the euphoric excitement brought by the much-anticipated festive, make the Filipino Christmas a heart-warming and one-of-a-kind experience.

Philippines is known for celebrating the longest and merriest Christmas season around the globe. As early as September, Filipinos start a Christmas countdown, decorating their homes and offices with anything that relates to the Yuletide Season and keep these ornaments until the Feast of Epiphany or Three Kings on the first week of the following year. Throughout this period, a mixture of western and native Filipino traditions are observed.

For most Filipinos, no festive holiday is complete without Christmas symbols and decorations. To get a head start, thrifty locals shop for Christmas decorations in the markets of Divisoria in Manila and Dapitan Trade in Quezon City, among others, as early as possible to avoid the madness. Due to its low-priced goods, these markets get crazy busy and crowded as the Christmas season rolls around.

With the presence of various markets and malls across the country — from cheap bargain bazaars to high-end shopping complexes — and with the emergence of online shopping platforms, Filipinos can easily find a market to perfectly suit the things they will be needing for Christmas ornaments.

Once all materials are set, Filipinos decorate their homes with dazzling lights, strung about in festoons, stars, angels, Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and in a large variety of other ways.

Households and buildings are also adorned with iconic star lanterns, called parol, which is the ultimate symbol of Christmas in the country. It represents the star of Bethlehem that guided the Three Kings to the manger. It emits warmth, joy and harmony, symbolizing the victory of light over darkness and the Filipinos’ hope, especially during hard times.

Another popular Filipino Christmas decoration is the belen — a tableau representing the nativity scene or the birth of Jesus Christ. Belens, which are usually made from wood, ceramic and recycled materials, can be seen in homes, offices, schools, and churches. It is a typical scene at schools to showcase plays where students act as the Holy Family and the Magi, recreating the Christmas belen.

While being proactive with the decor, practical Filipinos also shop for gifts during the lean season to avoid hassle and stress, as roads get so congested during the Christmastime.

Although the Christmas season starts in the Philippines as early as September, the official observance by the Catholic Church in the country is from the beginning of the Simbang Gabi — a nine-day series of early morning masses to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary — on Dec. 16.

As a predominantly Catholic nation, many Filipinos adhere to the tradition of Simbang Gabi, wherein people wake up at the break of dawn to attend mass at their local churches. Attending these masses is one of the many ways for Filipinos to show their devotion to the Divine being and as a spiritual preparation for the commemoration of the Savior’s birth.

After observing a Simbang Gabi, it is a common tradition for Filipinos to tickle their taste buds with delectable traditional delicacies sold outside the churches such as bibingka and puto bumbong. Bibingka is a round rice cake made with rice flour and coconut milk, baked in a clay oven with the coals underneath and on top. It is topped with cheese and egg or salted egg, and brushed with butter. Meanwhile, puto bumbong is a rice cake made of steamed black glutinous rice called pirurutong, which is cooked in bamboo. It is served with margarine, grated coconut, and palm sugar granules.

Dec. 16 also marks the beginning of one of the light-hearted Christmas traditions in the country, the caroling. A group of kids, as well as adults, would travel to villages with their musical instruments, expecting a handful of coins from the householders after singing Christmas carols under the twinkling stars in the sky. It is certainly the best time to belt those tunes and sing your heart out.

Some of the most popular Filipino traditional songs sung by carolers, even up to these days, are Ang Pasko ay Sumapit, Sa Paskong Darating, and Namamasko (Sa May Bahay ang Aming Bati), among others.

Christmas celebration in the country culminates with the Noche Buena on Christmas Eve. It is a grand feast full of delicious native and foreign cuisines like roasted pig, sweet ham, pork barbeque, pancit, queso de bola and fruit salad. While celebratory dinners are universal, what makes Filipino Noche Buena different is the presence of each family members. Aside from dining together, it is also the time when families open their Christmas presents.

On Christmas Day, Filipinos traditionally visit the homes of their relatives so the kids can pay respect to their uncles, aunts and grandparents. Usually, the children line up to perform a Filipino greeting of respect called pagmamano. Most of the time, the children are rewarded with aguinaldo or gifts like toys or money.

With more than four months of celebration, Christmas in the Philippines is truly one of a kind. But more than the red block date on the calendar, the gleaming decor around, the presents underneath the Christmas tree, the feast and the banquet spread on the table, it should be kept in mind that Christmas is all about the love of God, the birth of the Savior of all mankind.