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9 Filipino Christmas traditions with a 21st century twist

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Our Christmas season unofficially starts in September, when you see common traditions being done. To make the occasion more exciting, why not put some twist in your usual practices during the holidays? Check out these suggestions for a more festive and meaningful holidays.

1. Coming back home. Many people celebrate this opportunity to be with their families. Overseas Filipino workers (OFW) look forward to coming home to the Philippines and being with their loved ones. They usually come home with balikbayan boxes, filled with gifts for each member of the family, and money to spend on trips and food to make up for the lack of time they spend with their children and other relatives.

People working and living in business districts travel miles and rush to the provinces and celebrate Christmas with the whole family, their friends and, sometimes, even the entire barangay.

The Twist: Celebrate the holidays with the entire family in a new place, whether it’s a staycation or an out-of-town hotel.

2. Parol-making. Christmas lanterns, or parol, the most ever-present Christmas ornaments. You’ll see some in the streets along the city peppered with stalls selling this decoration.
Trivia: Some rural areas consider this as an artform. Pampanga, a province north of Manila, is the parol-making center of the Philippines. If you’re ever in San Fernando, Pampanga around this time, make sure to take part in the Giant Lantern Festival, held on the Saturday before Christmas Eve. You’ll get to see creativity lit up in giant stars parading on the streets.

The Twist: Try making a parol with your loved ones at home to get into the Filipino Christmas Spirit.

3. Caroling Christmas choir. “Let’s sing a Merry Christmas and a happy holidays. This season may we never forget the love we have for Jesus…” Yes, the spirit of Christmas is definitely in the air once you hear this famous song. You’ll see and hear people, adults and children alike, belting out jingles.

The Twist: If you’re tired of the same old boring Christmas carol, spice it up a bit by turning it into a rap battle or make it sound more modern and catchy. People will certainly award you with praise and, possibly, even extra cash.

4. Christmas parties. Family reunions are one of the main highlights of the Christmas season, when relatives come home from abroad to be with their loved ones. Typically, one’s December schedule is jampacked with visits to your different relatives’ places.

The Twist: Instead of having the usual Christmas party, you may organize a humanitarian or environmental outreach program. Tree-planting, coastal cleanups and even mountain hikes can be ways to celebrate the holidays with the family.

5. Noche Buena lechon. It’s that night of the year, with merrymaking and lots of food. This tradition is also common in several Hispanic countries aside from the Philippines. It’s the meal taken after Christmas Mass (Misa de Gallo), where the family gather around the dinner table and eat to their heart’s content.

For many families, lechon, or roast suckling pig, and other favorites are the centerpiece of Noche Buena. Some families even make it a point to cook together. Some cook a little extra to feed others with fewer means in their community. Or, if they don’t have time, they go out to restaurants instead.

The Twist: Have you tried having a family boodle fight? Lay down several large banana leaves on the dinner table. Put in rice, and drop all the viands on top of the rice (this doesn’t apply to pasta, though). Make sure the viands are separate from one another, in case their tastes don’t match. Eat using hands, and only the hands.

6. Christmas shopping . What would Christmas be without shopping nowadays? Most malls today hold sales, while Christmas bazaars pop up in convention centers and other event spaces. This is the time to really go out and spend some money, especially when people are looking for last-minute gifts for other relatives and friends.

The Twist: Go shopping online! If you have a friend who loves to go around the world, why not book a flight and hotel for them? This is one memorable gift you’ll be giving to that person.

7. Simbang Gabi. Many devout Catholics make it a point to wake up as early as four in the morning to get ready for Simbang Gabi. These nine masses show a person’s great anticipation for the birth of Jesus Christ.

After each Eucharistic celebration, church-goers buy bibingka (rice cakes with salted egg and sprinkled with coconut shavings), puto bumbong (purple rice cakes sprinkled with brown sugar and coconut shavings) and hot chocolate.

In the busy modern world, though, many don’t have the luxury or the energy to wake up at four in the morning. This is why many churches nowadays hold anticipated simbang gabi the night before—around eight in the evening, when most office workers are on their way home.

The Twist: Some couples use Simbang Gabi as a way to meet each other before they go to work. Try this out with your special someone and enjoy a heartwarming breakfast by the church. Some individuals also try hearing dawn masses in nine different churches around them. If it’s their first time in that church, they make a wish.

8. Aguinaldo gift-giving. This tradition involves children (and sometimes adults) going from house to house, or relative to relative, and asking for presents that either come as trinkets or money, if your ninangs and ninong are generous. This is still widely practiced in some families, only they don’t get to go to different houses—they go around the dinner table and ask for gifts from their aunts and uncles.

The Twist: While cash and toys are great ideas, how about giving them gift certificates or vouchers that can be used to try other experiences like a staycation, perhaps?

9. New Year’s Eve fireworks. Yes, New Year’s Eve is still considered part of the Christmas season in the Philippines. Like Noche Buena, the family gathers again for Media Noche or “midnight meal.” Other families also gather in public areas to view free concerts and fireworks displays.

The Twist: Have you tried spending New Year’s Eve outside Metro Manila? It’s a totally different scene in the provinces. It’s more festive and informal, and the food is fresh. Book a family-friendly hotel, get on a bus or on a plane, and find a new way to spend New Year’s Eve.

In this day and age, you can make your Christmas season even more exciting by trying out our country’s traditions and adding a personal twist. Traveloka

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