In the Philippines, Christmas is still politically correct.

Indeed, it is the big holiday of the year, when every Filipino in the world tries to get together with their families. This means that the planes, trains, automobiles and ferries are packed, with everyone carrying huge boxes of gifts for family members and friends.

The main streets, the city hall, and the shops are all decorated with parol stars,colourful paper mache stars which are lighted and hung on all the houses.

But Christmas is also a family holiday. How else could it be, when religion in this rural area sees Mama Mary and Kuya Jesus and Father God as part of the extended family, not as a mysterious hostile stranger.

So greeting baby Jesus is part of the celebration.

One important custom is the “Simbang Gabi”, also known as the “Missa de Gallo”, or rooster mass.

For nine days before Christmas, Mass is held before dawn, and many Pinoys, both here and abroad, try to attend.

The early hour was begun so farmers could attend before they went to work (The “second season” of rice planting is starting about this time).

(see LINK2orFreerepublic)
So Lolo wakes me up at 3 am and we walk two blocks to the main street to catch a tricycle–that’s a small motorcycle with a sidecar to hold one person, that around here often holds two people and one behind the driver, and packages tied to the back and roof.

We try to leave early, knowing that if we get there too “late”, i.e. after 3:30, there are no seats, although since Lolo is elderly people usually move over for him.

The aisles are packed, so people sit outside on steps and curbs or stand outside at the many open doors (three side doors) if they can’t get a seat.
The mass is like Sunday, full of hymns and singing. There is a procession up to the altar with the Knights of Colombus in their white shirts and then the choir sings.
The mass is “long” because they sing the Gloria and there is a sermon. At the offertory, the little children bring up envelopes with money and a chosen family brings up the bread and wine, while the ushers take the collection.
We still kneel for the consecration, but then stand for the great AMEN and the singing of the “Our Father”. Most people here are in various charismatic groups, so they hold their hands “Orante” (hands at shoulder level, palms up) through the prayer, and at the end the hands go up and then hold the hand of the person next to you for the last few lines.

There are so many people at the Simbang Gabi, the communion helpers go to the side and back doors to give communsion to those standing outside can receive.

Photo of the old City Hall and square, called Freedom Park since it has monuments to the heroes of the revolution and World War II.

But here, Mass is fervant but not serious.
This is the Philippines, so people, especially children, are sneaking in and out all the time. Outside, the vendors sell baloons, candles, and candy.

What is interesting is that although whole families go, the church is full of young people. After the service, the young people all head for the city square to eat and drink and flirt. Well, that’s one way to encourage young men to go to church. Of course, most of the congregation goes home but a lot of them head toward the vendors. We went to buy bibinka, but the line was too long, so we went home to our usual fried egg and fried rice.

They celebrate the Simbang Gabi in many Catholic churches in the US, especially in Los Angeles, where many Pinoys live. LINK With two million Pinoys in the Middle East, of course they celebrate the Simbang Gabi in Dubai and other religion friendly countries. Alas, no mass in Saudi, so many Pinoys working there have to go on vacation to more tolorant states in the Middle East.

But Christmas celebration is not only in the early morning. In the evening, the kids come around singing (off key) and banging a tin can drum. (They leave after you give them one or two pesos). Small bands also come around playing hymns for everyone to enjoy.

As the holiday comes closer, the firecrackers will start…so getting a good night’s sleep is hard for me (Lolo just removes his hearing aid, and voila, instant silence).
Sigh. There are some advantages to being hard of hearing in the Philippines.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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