I have spent a few Christmases in the Philippines throughout my life. Recollections of my big, rowdy family singing karaoke, quipping and bantering with one another to great comedic effect and eating copious amounts of lechon are some of my fondest memories of the holiday. As a Filipino-American with practically no extended family living here in the United States, I am quite aware of the stark difference between how Christmas is celebrated in the two countries I call home. While we here in the United States are busy purchasing Halloween costumes or anxiously preparing to host Thanksgiving dinner, Filipinos have had their homes adorned with Christmas decorations since September. Filipinos indeed go all out for the holidays for nearly four months straight!
This connection between Filipino culture and Christmas just makes sense, right? Filipinos, both in the homeland and in diasporic communities across the world, are famous for singing, dancing and celebrating every chance we get. Not to mention, the nation is predominantly Catholic. However, these broad ideas create an unfortunate and false representation of Filipinos as a superficial people, perpetuating a misconception that Filipino culture is nothing but empty mimicry of western customs. Upon deeper inspection of the strong tie between Filipinos and the Christmas holiday, I have come to realize that this passionate celebration comes from somewhere much deeper.
Filipinos, both from the archipelago and throughout the diaspora, face serious issues that often go unaddressed. For many of us, Christmas can serve as an escape from the real difficulty, pain and sacrifice that our communities have historically faced and continue to wrestle with. However, our celebration of Christmas can also be a tool with which we can assert our cultural identities in a way that transcends time and space – allowing all of us with roots in the Philippines to remain connected to the culture by never allowing our history to be forgotten. Filipino Christmas traditions are indeed a way to sing, dance, eat and spend time together as a community, but by understanding their past, we can transform these rituals into vehicles for meaningful conversation, creativity, empowerment and a history that is told from our perspective and is uniquely our own.
There is no better place to begin telling the history of Christmas in the Philippines than by talking about the parol, a staple in Filipino Christmas decorations. According to Tatler, “The parol’s traditional simple design may be credited to Francisco Estanislao, an artisan from the province of Pampanga, who crafted a five-pointed paper star lantern in 1908.” This traditional version of the parol was made with sticks of bamboo and Japanese paper, then lit up by placing a candle inside. The word parol, itself, comes from the Spanish word farol, meaning ‘lantern’, signifying the influence of Spain on colonial Filipinos and their innovations. Furthermore, the parol was commonly used as a way for townsfolk to light their path to local churches for midnight mass.
The parol’s components, as well as its name, illustrate the multicultural influences that have marked the Philippines’ past. Like most innovations of the colonial period, Filipinos have put their own twist on the parol, now using all kinds of materials like plastic and fiberglass. As mentioned in an article by the Filipino news and lifestyle publication, Spot PH, capiz, a shell material found in the waters in and around the archipelago, is now one of the most commonly used materials for parols. The parol serves as an example of the way Filipinos continue to rework and reclaim these artifacts of colonial origin in order to make something that celebrates a history of survival and resilience. Both in the Philippines and across the diaspora, parol-making has become a fun holiday activity which strengthens cultural ties, fosters artistry and even makes use of recycled and repurposed materials in order to create something distinctively Filipino.
One of the last times that I visited my home province of Tarlac, Philippines, I got the chance to see a showcase of a similar kind of creativity and innovation through sustainable means. This festive celebration, entitled Belenismo, is an annual Christmas season tradition exclusive to the Tarlac province. Participants – which often includes municipal organizations, school or university groups and church parishes – are tasked to design and construct a nativity scene to be showcased in a central area for free public viewing. For many of these displays, recycled materials are integral to their construction. The last time I was able to view the Belenismo entries of each municipality, I was awe-struck by the way bottle caps, plastic spoons and other scrap materials were used in these impressively extravagant scenes. The Belenismo displays, like traditional nativity scenes, are obviously used as a tribute to the birth of Jesus. However, Roots & Wings also heralds the Belenismo creations as “symbols of hope” while explaining some of their stories and meanings. They report on one such creation, “The display entry of the Taguiporo Giants Association, which features a nativity scene in a volcano-designed Belen, looks astounding and calls the people’s attention to the effects of climate change.” The environmentally conscious nature of this tradition reveals many of the realities that Filipinos, especially rural or provincial populations, are faced with: extreme poverty and increased vulnerability to the effects of the climate crisis. The Belenismo is not only a way for Filipinos to engage with Catholic religious practice, but can also function as an outlet for artistry and innovation. Despite the lack of resources and materials due to the widespread poverty throughout the Philippines, the people of Tarlac nevertheless find ways to express their concerns, realities, hopes and dreams through this inspiring local Christmas tradition.
While the parol and the local tradition of the Belenismo are rooted in the lasting influence of Spanish colonialism and Catholicism, there are some Filipino Christmas traditions which are more intrinsically tied to the American occupation of the Philippines. This nearly fifty-year occupation functioned on the idea that Americans could help ‘develop’ the Philippines as a truly powerful global entity, with goals to ‘civilize’ the local population, as stated in an article published by the Association of Asian Studies. Such traditions that were left behind by the Americans include ones that many of us are familiar with, like the decoration of Christmas trees or Santa Claus. The balikbayan box, which can often be spotted being carted around in international airports across the country, may be one of the most quintessential symbols of the transnational nature of the Filipino diasporic experience.
According to The Atlantic, “In Tagalog, balikbayan means ‘return to country.’” Created in the U.S. in the 1980s, balikbayan boxes are large cardboard parcels, usually stuffed to the brim with presents and other material goods. These packages are then to be shipped to the families of OFWs, or overseas Filipino workers, in the Philippines. The Philippine economy is powered by this industry of OFWs, which brings billions of dollars into the nation and sees nearly 2 million Filipino nationals being sent away each year to work in countries all across the globe. With a vast population of migrant workers, the United States economy also benefits from the labor of Filipino immigrants, a large portion of which are women who find livelihoods in domestic work or healthcare – industries in which they are frequently subject to long hours and insufficient wages. OFWs and other Filipino immigrant laborers often single-handedly provide for their families back home, thereby spending long periods away, even during the holidays. The balikbayan box, in this context, is transformed into an apparatus for the creation of a physical connection between transnational families that can transcend oceans and borders – a method of “returning to the country” when one is unfortunately unable to do so.
By analyzing these Christmas traditions through this critical lens, we can more fully understand the realities of Filipinos and the Filipino diasporic experience. Yes, Christmas is a time for joy and togetherness and a time to escape our daily woes in order to celebrate all of the positive parts of our lives. Traditions like the Belenismo, parol-making and personalizing balikbayan boxes are all methods in which Filipinos across the world connect with our families, communities and identities. Nevertheless, it is imperative to remember that these customs are all echoes of a complex and turbulent past filled with colonial violence and oppression. Their histories are difficult to accept as they challenge every stereotype about the Filipino people. They destroy the idea that we are unfailingly happy or that painful sacrifices are simply inevitable aspects of our experience that we are built to withstand with a song or a smile. I have seen the vibrance and liveliness of Filipino culture for myself, but I have also bore witness to the way our communities all across the world suffer from the lasting impact of our complicated past. This interplay of conflicting emotions is indeed a part of the Filipino diasporic experience which we must continue to contend with. Ultimately, these traditions and their histories do not tell the story of the Filipino people as mere victims of oppression, settler colonialism and poverty, but instead provide nuanced representations of our cultural identity–emphasizing our ability for community-building, artistic expression as well as our determination to exercise our autonomy in adaptive and creative ways.