(STAR) ROSES & THORNS By Alejandro R. Roces - The Philippines has the longest Christmas celebration in the world: Tomorrow marks the official beginning of our celebrations with the first Misa de Gallo of the simbang gabi.

Elsewhere, Christmastide starts during Christmas itself and extends up to either the Epiphany or the New Year. Our Christmas used to be exactly 21 days; but with the Epiphany now commemorated on the first Sunday of January that does not coincide with New Year, it now varies from 17 to 22 days. But, it is the simbang gabi that gives our Christmas celebration a thoroughly Filipino touch. We say thoroughly Filipino because it is only in the Philippines that Christmastide opens with the nine-day series of night masses.

The simbang gabi is actually a misnomer because the Masses are celebrated at four o’clock in the morning. The folk called it night Masses because at that time, it is still as dark as night. The simbang gabi is something that demonstrates how Christmas became Filipinized. Christmas coincided with the rice harvest season when farmers have to be harvesting their crops at the crack of dawn. So, to accommodate the farmers, the novenary Masses were celebrated at four o’clock in the morning. It became such a part of Christmas that even in urban centers like Metro Manila, people attend Masses at the ungodly hour of four in the morning. It is unnecessary in the modern era to attend Mass that early, but it has become a tradition and a custom: It helps to stamp our Christmas celebration as purely Filipino.

The food generally associated with the simbang gabi and the misa de aguinaldo have pre-Hispanic roots. Post misa de aguinaldo treats like the rice cakes (such as puto bumbong) and rice puddings were originally given to pagan harvest spirits and gods in thanks. When the first Christian missionaries came to the Philippines it was not too difficult for them to get the Filipinos to accept the Christmas celebration. December was part of the harvest season; and the Filipinos were still in the mood to celebrate and give thanks. Our Christmas celebrations still have echoes of our pagan past.

The other thing that distinguishes the Filipino Christmas is the star lantern. Star lanterns are the main reflection of our state economy during Christmas. When Jose Rizal wanted to depict an unhappy Christmas, he wrote: “It was Christmas Eve but the town was sad. Not one paper lantern hung from the windows.” In contrast, when the economy is great, the humble star lanterns become pyrotechnical splendors. The San Fernando town of Pampanga is famous for making fantastic star lanterns. We wonder what type of Christmas we will see this year.

The star lantern evolved from the Mexican luminaria. In Mexico, people decorate their homes with an ordinary paper bag that was filled with sand and contained a candle. People placed them outside their homes as symbols that Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary didn’t have to look for an inn to stay. They were welcomed in all the homes. They also had piñatas or pots that were filled with sweets for the children that were hung and later broken so that the children could get the sweets. Our parol was inspired by the luminaria and the piñata.

Today, our Christmas celebration has taken on some American celebratory trappings; chief among them Santa Claus. We have always been experts at combining different influences and creating a celebration purely Filipino. There is no Christmas like a Philippine Christmas.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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