You won't hear a single complaint about Christmas music in the shops in September in the Philippines. Once the "ber" months set in (September, October, November, December), Christmas is in full swing. Literally overnight on 31 August, Christmas songs belt out from every sound system and homes, shops and even the streets are filled with parols (festive lanterns) and nativity scenes, known as belens. It's September and the silly season has arrived!
It's September and the silly season has arrived!
So much to pack in
There's no known reason why Filipinos begin Christmas months before the rest of the Christian world. Perhaps it's simply because they cherish this time of year so much, they want to make the most of it.
"Christmas in Philippines is about celebrating and gathering together friends and family," says Nina Cruz, head chef of Lidcome's Sizzling Fillo. That can take some time, considering the closeness of Filipino family relationships. Distant relatives and even close neighbours are often included in the concept of 'family', so gatherings can be very large. Even then, you need to kick off in September to accommodate all the people you need to catch up with.
Sing it out loud
One way to get together with your nearest and dearest is through carolling. Carolling is very big in the Philippines and one of renowned lifestyle and food photographer Luisa Brimble's favourite Christmas traditions. Brimble grew up in the Philippines, being spoiled by her aunties.
"We loved doing this as a kid," she remembers fondly. "We would go from house to house singing Christmas carols and we'd be given some money. As a group of kids, we would divide this up between ourselves and buy some lollies."
Hopeful wishes might come true
As Asia's only predominantly Catholic country, the Christian calendar is also respected. Formal Christmas celebrations start with a pre-dawn mass on 16 December and daily mass, known as simbáng gabi is held over the nine days until Christmas day. The decorative parol lantern seen all over the Philippines during the festive season was traditionally made to light the way for early churchgoers. Waking before the crack of dawn to attend all nine days of mass is hopefully rewarded with a wish being granted.
The decorative parol lantern seen all over the Philippines during the festive season was traditionally made to light the way for early churchgoers.
Another way that wishes can come true is through the tradition of aguinaldo. This Spanish term for 'bonus' describes the act of money and gift-giving by relatives to children on Christmas day.
"Christmas mornings were the best," says Cruz. "Me and my cousins would line up to our titos and titas (aunties and uncles), grandparents and godparents for Christmas presents and cash."
As usual, it's really all about the food...
Aguinaldo generally follows on from the huge feast after the midnight mass on Christmas Eve that often lasts well into the early hours of Christmas day.
"I loved the hustle and bustle of the Christmas eve preparation," says Brimble. "Straight after church, we all go home to a midnight feast which is called noche buena. Lots of activities and cooking and playing with cousins."
The food served at noche buena highlights the melting pot of cultures that have influenced the Philippines.
"My favourite has to be Filipino Spaghetti," says Brimble. "It's a version of sweet spaghetti served on special occasions, especially at Christmas and new year's celebrations."
Other notable Filipino favourites include:
A street-food delicacy that's sold all over the Philippines during simbáng gabi, puto bumbong is made by steaming black glutinous rice inside bamboo tubes. It's then served sprinkled with grated coconut and palm sugar granules.
Keso de Bola
A round of keso de bola - which is basically just the local name for Dutch Edam cheese - is both feast and festive decor. This great ball of cheese is served with jamón and pandesal during the noche buena.
The food served at noche buena highlights the melting-pot of cultures that have influenced the Philippines.
Usually glazed with a sweet syrup or packed in a brown sugar crumble, the traditional ham is baked, then sometimes further fried to enhance the flavour. It's can be served with keso de bola or kesong puti - goat's cheese - but is enjoyed on its own or with bread just as often.
“Cider isn’t just great for drinking, it’s also perfect for cooking. Unsmoked ham hocks are not often used for cooking but trust me, it’s worth giving them a try. You might need to order them ahead of time from your butcher.” Rachel Khoo, Rachel Khoo's Kitchen Notebook Melbourne
Nothing marks a celebration quite like a glazed ham. This sweet glaze with a kick of mustard powder will serve you well during the festive season. You can make this glaze up to 2 weeks ahead and refrigerate until needed.
A good baked ham, in my view, is actually baked for quite a while to caramelise the sugars onto the skin. To do this I make a runny marinade and the flavours infuse into the ham from the base and the top as it cooks. Because our hams aren’t full of water, I like to soak mine for a bit before baking.
Unlike some other Christmas treats, bibingka is actually served all year around, but is most popular during the festive time of year. It's often sold outside of church late at night during simbáng gabi to fuel hungry churchgoers.
Find the recipe for bibingka here.
An amalgamation of cultures, embutido is made with minced pork (or beef or chicken), carrot, pineapple and raisins. The meat mixture is rolled around hard-boiled eggs and pork sausages then wrapped tightly in foil and steamed until cooked through.
"It’s like meatloaf in western countries," says Cruz.
Pancit palabok combines the quintessential flavours of the Philippines in one succulent stir-fried seafood and noodle dish. It's flavoured with crunchy pork rinds, annatto seeds and boiled eggs.
One of the desserts offered at every Filipino gathering, and especially at Christmas, is a simple tinned fruit salad. A can of fruit cocktail is mixed with some pouring cream, and it's ready to go.
Suckling pigs are such a revered part of Christmas that whole parades have been devoted to showing suckling pigs wearing costumes.
All over the Philippines at Christmas, suckling pigs roast over open flames. It's such a revered part of Christmas that whole parades have been devoted to showing suckling pigs wearing costumes. During the festive season, you can buy a cone of roasted pig from a street vendor, or the whole pig for the Christmas table. The Filipinos gather in such large numbers at this time of year that a whole pig is necessary to feed the hungry masses.
Spit-roasted suckling pig is always a crowd favourite at a party, but it's hard to perfect. A spit-roaster can be easily hired from a barbecue-hire service, found in most areas. They can supply you with all the utensils you’ll need, plus coals. Most good butchers will happily supply your suckling pig. It's best to give them advance notice to avoid disappointment as they can take a few days to source. Always insist on a fresh pig.
This delicious mix of eggs, condensed milk and sugar is traditionally served on Christmas Eve to complete the noche buena feast. It's incredibly sweet, so it seems a fitting end to a Filipino Christmas.