Christmas in the Philippines is a BIG thing.
Apparently, the Philippines have the longest Christmas season. I don’t know the accuracy of this information but I heard it somewhere from someone who I can no longer remember. It starts on 16 December with the simbang gabi or dawn masses and ends on 06 January with the Feast of the Three Kings. That is if you don’t count the fact that Christmas carols can be heard as early as September.
It’s nine days of waking up at 03:00 to attend mass at 04:00 and believed that if you complete the nine days, your wishes will be granted. Half asleep each time, we valiantly attempt the completion of this tradition, while anticipating treats after the mass in the form of bibingka, fragrant soft flat cake-like treat lined in banana leaves topped with kesong puti (native white cheese) and sometimes, slices of salted duck egg with grated coconut meat and puto bumbong with either hot chocolate or salabat (ginger tea), sold from makeshift stalls lining the outside courtyard and streets leading to the church. These rice-based sweets abound at Christmas time as it coincides with the rice harvest. Throughout the country, rice cakes are produced and eaten with much anticipation.
Pampanga delights include putong sulot (white anise-flavoured cake in trapezoidal shapes) and panara (a pastry filled with grated gourd or green papaya sautéed with garlic, onion, pork, shrimp and seasoned with salt and pepper).
Vigan and Laoag delights include tinubong (half cooked puto mixture cooked inside bamboos on coals), tupig (banana wrapped coconut-mixed dough cooked buried in burning rice chaff) and patupat or tinapet (rice delicacies in pyramidal shapes).
Cebuano delights include hot chocolate with potomaya (sticky rice cooked with coconut milk), suman bodbod (sweetened sticky rice in coconut leaves) and biko (sweetened sticky rice moulded on a plate) and bibingka.
There are many more varieties of rice cakes and they are generally categorised into puto or suman. They come in different colours, shapes and sizes; sweetened by muscovado sugar, made creamy with coconut milk, mixed with coconut meat or grated coconut but each unique in itself in taste that you sometimes can’t imagine it is made with the humble rice grain.
When Christmas eve comes, the house would be a flurry of activity from getting the Noche Buena (literally translated from Spanish as good night) feast ready, to last minute shopping for presents or more food, to making a quick dash to the salon for some pampering before dressing up for midnight mass. By about ten o’clock, the whole family, all dressed up to the nines, make their way to church and along the way, the houses will have all their Christmas lights twinkling and blazing bright in the blanket of night. At the end of midnight mass, we all go home and the Noche Buena feast begins!
So, what comprises a Noche Buena feast?
This will vary per household but from childhood memory, the star of the feast is lechon, an entire roasted suckling pig (check out our other post of Lechon). Other dishes would be chicken galantina, morcon, paella valenciana, fiesta ham glazed with apples or peaches, chicken macaroni salad, pancit malabon or palabok; desserts would be leche flan, fruit salad or buko (young coconut) salad, buko pandan, fruitcake, puto, suman and any flavoured cake like ube (purple yam) and macapuno cake or mango supreme or sans rival. Modern Noche Buena feast now includes American and European treats to be included on the table but the essence is still rooted within traditional dishes.
All these served on the table, buffet style.
To Filipinos, Christmas and the Noche Buena feast is the time when families come together to celebrate, give thanks for the year that has past, catch up with relatives seldom seen and look forward to the year ahead. It is a day of sharing, not just the food on the table but of each other. And afterwards, we open our presents, sing and party into the wee hours of the morning.
A Filipino band called The Company describes this tradition nicely by calling it our ‘greatest dinner’ and ‘with treats prepared so lovingly’ in a song entitled (not so surprisingly) Noche Buena.
Maligayang Pasko sa inyong lahat! (Merry Christmas everyone!)