Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christmas in the Philippines c. 1940

"Parol" by Philippine National Artist Fernando Amorsolo. 
Source: the blog of Dennis Villegas

I found the following description of Filipino Christmas in the SVD archives, specifically in the first page of the December 1941 – January 1942 issue of “The Cenacle Missionary”:

“The rural districts present a more colorful and pompous celebration of Christmas than the urban districts. From the first day of the Novena to its termination, masses are held in every Catholic Church usually varying from 2:00 A.M. to 4:00 A.M. The 16th of December is the first day of the novena… The church patio is usually well-lighted for the occasion by home made lanterns if there is no electric light service in the town…
Christmas season, mission church in Abra, pre-WWII era. Take note of the six-pointed parols and the lanterns of different shapes. From a private collection.

The day preceding Christmas is a busy day, because of the feverish activities in every home; cleaning of yards and houses; preparing of cakes for the next day; decorating of homes; and the making of Christmas trees… The last novena mass which is usually a high mass fills the churches due to the addition of the returning people from their temporary residence. The mass (of Christmas Eve - CAP) begins at 12:00 midnight to coincide with the birth of our Saviour, Christ the King. These novena masses are like any other masses except infinitely more joyous.

There are not only the usual choir voices, there are also castanets, tambourines, etc. This last mass is the most awaited of all. At the stroke of 12, the priest sings “Gloria in excelsis Deo” and the choir voices burst into song. The Christ Child has been born…”

Notable features:

1) In some places, Simbang Gabi Masses began as early as 2:00 A.M. At present, the dawn Masses normally begin at 4:00 or 4:30 A.M.; I've heard of only one church with a Mass starting at 3:00 A.M., and that is an "early" Simbang Gabi before the main Simbang Gabi of 4:00 A.M.

2) Christmas decorations were often prepared and put up on December 24, very different from the contemporary practice of unduly prolonging the Christmas season in the minds of most people by putting up Yuletide lights as early as November.

3) Tambourines and castanets were used at the Mass of Christmas Eve. This corroborates the testimony to me of one of the oldest members of the Van de Steen Choir (made up of members of the former Manila Cathedral Boys’ Choir from the 1950's and 1960's), who told me that he remembers tambourines being used at Christmas Eve Mass when he was still small. I'll add that Gerry de Leon's 1961 film adaptation of Noli Me Tangere features a short sound clip of the Gloria being sung on Christmas Eve, and the sound of tambourines can be clearly heard along with it. 

4) I find the practice of timing the Christmas Eve Mass so that the intonation of “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” falls on the stroke of midnight, to be a fitting announcement that Christmas Day has indeed come.


  1. Christmas in the Philippines is no doubt not only the longest but even the warmest! Advance Merry Christmas and God bless! :)

  2. Iba talaga kapag pasko sa Pilipinas family oriented kase tayo and i'm proud of it! This christmas san kayo?? me and family will spend Christmas in Resort and Casino in Manila