Predominantly Christian Philippines, a nation of 106 million multi-ethnic people, begins tonight the celebrated nine-day Midnight Masses in Aglipayan and Catholic churches from Batanes down to the Christian towns in Mindanao.
Christians gather in their respective parishes to celebrate the birth of Jesus, that moment, in the words of Roman Catholic Archbishop Diartmuid Martin “when the God who had existed before all ages took on human flesh for our salvation.”
Theologians say God took on human flesh and taught the believers what it meant to be human: the Christmas story getting past “a fascinating fairy tale: a wonderful story of simplicity set in the bleak and austere beauty of a cold winter’s night” nearly 8,800 kms away from this Land of the Morning.
Earlier on, Manila Archbishop Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle reminded the Catholic faithful of the true essence of the Midnight Masses, saying these “are expressions of filial devotion that prepare the faithful as they receive Christ in their lives.”
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines also underlined to the young Filipinos that they must “put God in their friendship” because the Midnight Masses were for worship and not for courtship.
Aglipayan and Catholic priests—from Gonzaga in Cagayan to Paoay and Pinili in Ilocos Norte down to Muñoz City in Nueva Ecija, Binalonan in Pangasinan to Moncada and Gerona in Tarlac as well as Camalig in Albay and Minglanilla in Cebu – and the other Christian towns in the country—will intone yet once more the significance and message of the Midnight Masses which culminate on the eve of Christmas.
There will be those who talk of the simplicity the shepherds displayed, the first to go to Jesus in the manger and encounter, according to Christians, the world’s Redeemer, without even saying “transeamus usque Bethlehem.”
At the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, the parish priest Fr. Jaime Padilla has been talking about the Holy Year of Mercy and Compassion, wishing everyone should be able to welcome into their lives the mercy of God that Jesus had given to the faithful.
Priests, Aglipayans and Catholics, are one in saying while the Christmas story is captivatingly engrossing, there is something, the inroads of technology despite, that makes believers stop and think and realize that life is deeper than Yuletide’s commercialized portrayal.
And the cold winds from the Mongolian steppes, which have started to be felt in this tropical country in mid September, have been an apt reminder that before much too long the Church bells would start chiming the Midnight Masses.
In some streets of historic San Juan City, particularly Gilmore, Ortigas Avenue, Pinaglabanan and F. Blumentritt, including the square fronting the Agora Public Market, the colors have become a reminder that Yuletide indeed is here.
Christmas songs as well have taken the night atmosphere—like the song Joy to the World, whose lyrics were written in 1719 by English hymn writer and theologian Isaac Watts (1674-1748).
“Joy to the World, the Lord is come!/ Let earth receive her King;/ Let every heart prepare Him room,/ And Heaven and nature sing,/ And Heaven and nature sing,/ And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.”//
Elsewhere in the city, the Tagalog Christmas song “Pasko Na Naman” is being sung by young boys and girls in front of lantern-decorated houses.
”Pasko na naman, o kay tulin ng araw./ Paskong nagdaan, tila ba kung kailan lang./ Ngayon ay Pasko, dapat pasalamatan./ Ngayon ay Pasko, tayo ay mag-awitan.”//(It’s Christmas once again, the days roll by fast./ The past Christmas, ‘twas like it had just passed by./ Now that it’s Christmas, only proper we give thanks./ Now that it’s Christmas, let’s sing carols.//)
As in many other Christian towns of this Southeast Asian republic, discovered for Europe by Ferdinand Magellan on March 16, 1521, San Juan City has its share of lanterns and carols in the runup to the celebration of Midnight Masses.
Exotic foods at home after the Midnight Mass or the Misa de Gallo, the mass of the Rooster—following nine successive night masses in Church will enrich plates of Filipino homes.
On the front yards of the Catholic churches—like the Santuario del Sto. Cristo in Kabayanan and the St. John the Baptist Church near the City Hall—and the other churches, rice cakes—the native bibingka and other home-made cakes and steaming cups of chocolate and coffee are sold to those attending the masses.
Many say Yuletide in this country—one of only two predominantly Christian countries in Asia, the other being East Timor—is a mixture of Western and native Filipino traditions.
Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, sending Christmas cards, and singing carols have all been inherited from the cultures of the West although these have been adapted to fit the nature and character of the Christian Filipino.
Perhaps not as many attend the first to the eighth night—or dawn—masses, but the ninth which falls on Christmas Eve, one of the traditions most Filipino families celebrate, is on the main a night without sleep and a continuing celebration sliding right into Christmas Day, when, ironically, dishing out of Christmas carols become already anti-climactic.
Some say as Dec. 24 dawns, the last Mass of Simbang Gabi—called Miatinis in many Ilocano towns and Misa de Gallo among Cebuanos in Central Philippines and in Mindanao—is attended by the elderly, those in mid-life and even the young ones.
In many towns, preparation begins for Noche Buena, a family feast that takes place after midnight, where near relatives and close friends are welcome.
Plates of rich foods—served often in buffet style—are aplenty on the covered dining table, including, but not limited to, lechon (pan-fried roast pork); kare-kare (oxtail stew in peanut butter sauce); gupi or igado; mechado; rellenong manok (baked stuffed chicken); pinakbet; crispy pata; pata tim; fried prawns and other sea foods which make a fisherman’s platter; pancit; barbecue; rice; adobo; cakes (Western and native rice cakes), lumpia (spring rolls) and fruits in season.
There are also bottles of basi, the fermented sugar cane juice, among the Ilocanos, or tapuy, tuba and lambanog in other regions and even bottles of imported hard drinks.
Not far from the Noche Buena table, the lyrics of the song O Holy Night—in some houses the version of Korean So Hyang is listened to—are being wafted: “O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,/ It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth./ Long lay the world in sin and error pining./ Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth…//
Given the Christian orientation of nearly 93 percent of the 106 million people, the celebration of Christmas is understandably important and revered holiday for most Filipinos.
Some say whether you are in a small town or in the urban areas, Christmas is a time for family, for sharing, for giving, and a time for food, fun, and friendship.
The fiesta mood is underscored by scores of lanterns in different sizes and with different bulbs, and—a new innovation—a lantern parade during an assigned night in December.
Star lanterns, with all dazzling colors available, and other Christmas decors, are an essential element of the Filipino celebration, a lengthy one by standards of other countries, the celebration ending on Epiphany.
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