Christmas is one of the biggest celebrations on the predominantly Catholic island of Cebu; it is a time of prayer and joy, when families come together to celebrate the birth of Christ, share their blessings, and explode firecrackers.
Filipinos pride themselves on having the world's longest Christmas season, and though officially Christmas last for nine days, the firecrackers, probably adopted from Chinese culture, go on sale as early as September. Indeed, the "ber" months - September through December - are considered to be an extended build-up to Christmas. In addition to firecrackers for sale, a sure sign that Christmas is approaching is the replacement of mall muzak by traditional Filipino Christmas carols, such as "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Jingle Bells."
It may seem rather odd to visitors from genuinely cold countries, but to Cebuanos there is nothing anomalous about Christmas decorations featuring fir trees, reindeers and sleds. And perhaps the adoption of such northern yuletide themes by Filipinos is not as odd as their introduction by Europeans in the first place, for did the original Christmas not take place in a fairly warm Middle Eastern country, where reindeers and snowmen are as alien as they are in the Philippines?
Be that as it may, Cebuanos celebrate Christmas with a vigor and intensity unrivaled the world over. In addition to an aura of solemn prayer and deep faith, the approach of Christmas brings a wild party atmosphere to the streets of Cebu.
Gigs featuring bands and deejays about, rickety plastic tables collapse under the weight of roasted pigs, cakes and other delicacies, and the wine flows freely - which is perhaps why an inordinately large number of Cebuano babies are born in the month of August.
Christmas decorations appear on houses, gardens, and buildings in October. The most famous is the large tree-shaped illumination on Fuente Osmea, sponsored annually by M Lhuiller, a Cebu-based chain of pawnshops. The design is changed every few years, and this year's design - shown at right - was inspired by the parol.
The parol, a uniquely Filipino Christmas lantern, is one of the most traditional decorations. Though originally made of paper in a single color and lit from the inside with a candle, nowadays parols are often multicolored and designed to flash on and off in different combinations.
In addition to parols, American-style electrical illuminations have been popular for decades. Common themes are sled-borne Santas being pulled by reindeer, Christmas trees, and stars. Obsessed as always by looking good, Cebuanos often go to immense trouble to ensure that their decorations are in impeccable shape. I once witnessed a huge Christmas star being raised progressively over the course of a month, inch by inch, until it shone brightly over the apex of the owner's house - a tumbledown shack made mostly of plywood and chicken wire.
Tragically, some of the illuminations are not manufactured according to modern safety standards, and every year a few houses are burned down as a result of fires sparked by substandard Christmas lights. In 2004, the daughter House Speaker De Venecia perished in such a fire, and perhaps authorities will be stricter on the vendors in 2005.
Families also decorate their houses on the inside, with - in almost all cases - plastic Christmas trees and brightly wrapped presents spread out under the tree. For this writer at least, such scenes drip with pathos, for these presents are patently fake, consisting of nothing but empty boxes wrapped gaily purely for show - a bittersweet reflection of reality in a country where the great mass of people are too poor to afford presents.
Some households go the extent of developing entire nativity scenes in their yards, often elaborate and expensive even if the house itself is unfinished. The best nativity scenes can be found on V Rama Street; for several years now an event called "Pasko sa V Rama" (Christmas at V Rama) has been held and designers compete for the award of best belen (nativity scene). While some of these belen are tasteless and somewhat eerie, a few stand out in their high degree of craftsmanship, design quality, and attention to detail.
In 2004, Cebu City also organized "Pasko sa Sugbo" (Christmas in Cebu), and each barangay hall prepared a belen in competition for an award which was to be announced on December 28 at Fuente. In a thoughtful touch, the rules specified that native materials were to be used rather than plastic, and barangay hall employees across the city struggled with bamboo, spray paint and gold glitter. On the evening of December 21, City Hall officials with clipboards made the rounds judging the belens throughout the city, though - as usual - the mountain barangays were ignored.
As in other countries, Christmas is a time of charity, and in Cebu this notion is taken to with unremitted gusto. As early as October, carolers accost vehicles at traffic lights, and, with the pretense of singing a song, beg for money. Youths band together and travel from house to house, virtually extorting cash.
It must be said, however, that some of these bands do take the trouble to develop an act, and do the rounds bearing guitars and other musical instruments, performing with a degree of accomplishment. Unlike kids out to make a quick buck, who usually sing a few bars of Western Christmas carols such as "Jingle Bells," skilled carolers have a repertoire consisting of Cebuano daygon - originally Cebuano Christmas songs, composed and written by Cebuanos in the Cebuano language.
As is always the case, talent and hard work is rewarded, and skilled carolers may collect coins worth as much as 1,000 pesos a night - a huge amount in a country where the average daily wage is less than 200 pesos.
But the most famous aspect of Christmas in the Philippines are the dawn Masses, also known as Simbang Gabi or Misa de Gallo (rooster's Mass). The week before Christmas is a bad time to have any kind of delicate work done in Cebu, for the workers will likely be functioning on just a few hours sleep. Starting on December 16, churches throughout the Philippines start holding masses at 4:00 AM. These are not attended by an obsessively devout minority, but by huge numbers of worshippers. At few other times during the year do the churches, cathedrals and chapels of the Philippines overflow with congregations the way they do during the Simbang Gabi.
At Guadalupe Church, the church was packed to capacity by 2:30 AM, but the faithful continued to come; young people, couples, and the aged - many of them bearing plastic chairs. The priests had thoughtfully set up overhead projectors outside the church, allowing the Mass to be witnessed by those unable to fit inside. At the Capitol Parish Church on Escario Street, closed-circuit television monitors beamed the proceedings to those in the parking lot.
Why the massive popularity of the dawn Masses? If I'm not mistaken, it is because the possibility to redeem one's sins is an integral part of the Catholic doctrine, and those who lapsed in their attendance throughout the year have the chance to return to God's good graces through unfailing attendance of the dawn Masses. Filipinos believe - and this belief is encouraged by the Church - that attendance of the dawn Masses will ensure that one's wish is granted. Wishing for good health, a good marriage, or simply improved prosperity, Cebuanos endure the torture of waking up in the middle of the night despite having attended a Christmas party in the evening before.
Those who manage to drag themselves to church on time and hear the Mass are rewarded with snacks; children, especially, look forward to traditional Cebuano snacks sold by vendors outside the church. Popular delicacies include a steaming hot cup of tsokolate to ward off the morning chill, bibingka, puto, and bud-bud.
The Misa de Gallo culminate in a Mass at 10 PM on December 24th, after which everyone heads home in time to celebrate Christmas Eve, or Noche Buena. The Noche Buena is essentially a feast in which more food is consumed by the family than the entire remainder of the year.
There's ham: Filipinos have adopted the English/American custom of eating ham at Christmas time, and huge stocks of pear-shaped ham move
through the supermarkests in December. Equally as important as the ham is the cheese. It makes sense, I suppose, to combine cheese with ham, but consuming huge quantities of cheese during the yuletide season is a uniquely Filipino custom. The Christmas cheese is a round Edam covered in thick red wax, roughly the size of a grapefruit. Christmas without this queso de bola (ball-shaped cheese) is incomplete. Interestingly, during the rest of the year, the queso de bola overruns are exported to Europe and not available in Cebu's stores.
Of course, no Cebuano celebration would be complete without lechon - a roast pig, or at least roast chicken - as well as fruit salad, cake, and a large variety of other cholesterol-laden dishes.
At midnight, the gluttony comes to a brief halt as firecrackers and fireworks are lit to herald Christmas Day. The noise is deafening as the whole city erupts in tens of thousands of explosions. In the olden days, shots were fired in the air, but nowadays the authorities have spoiled this aspect by taping the muzzles of cops' firearms shut, with signed masking tape. The masking tape is inspected after the holidays and if perforated, the cop will find himself out of a job.
The Chinese firecrackers, which sound just like gunshots, continue to be let off throughout Christmas Day, and early in the morning one may be forgiven for awakening in a panic - Cebu City becomes Bosnia in 1995, as sporadic blasts in the neighborhood are echoed by distant bursts of gunfire on the other side of the valley.
Christmas in Cebu can be frustrating at times - the incessant caroling, the unceasing firecracker explosions, the huge crowds at the malls, and the heavy traffic all take their toll. But the fact that few Cebuanos ever complain about these adverse effects and view Christmas with pure fondness is testament to the joy this time of year brings to the Cebuano heart. In Cebu, at least, it will always be a very, very merry Christmas.