Filipino students share Christmas memories, traditions

Angela Lim, Life & Arts General Reporter

As a child, Patrick Domingo woke up during the quiet hours of dawn in time for the 5 a.m. start to Simbang Gabi, a series of Catholic holy masses that occur during the nine days leading up to Christmas.

The religious custom of Simbang Gabi stems from 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines. Spanish friars introduced the tradition, so the farmers could listen to mass before going to work in the fields. Holiday celebrations serve as an integral part of Filipino life. Many Filipino UT students start decorating for the holidays in September and carry on traditions until Christmas. 

“My family is really big on (decorations),” government sophomore Domingo said. “We set up our tree, ornaments and we have the parol, which is a Filipino Christmas wreath.”

When December comes, the Filipino Christmas scene comes alive with groups of bustling family members. Domingo said he enjoys the plentiful food his family and relatives prepare for gatherings. Their Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve dinner, after midnight mass includes dishes such as pancit noodles, chicken adobo and lechon, a whole roasted pig.

“Everybody brings something (unique) to the table, whether it’s traditional Filipino food, smoked ham or some twist on a dessert,” Domingo said. “The food during Christmas tastes better because of the holiday spirit.”

Linguistics freshman Apollo Reyes said his family does carolling and karaoke together at Filipino holiday parties, singing Christmas songs late into the night.

“(It’s) very, very busy,” Reyes said. “There’s always a gathering at somebody’s house with uncles, aunts and cousins that you may or may not even be related to … They could just be your ninang or ninong because that’s what your parents call them.”

Filipinos use the Christmas season as an opportunity to catch up with one another in the same place. Reyes said he looks forward to long conversations with all of his relatives.

“I like seeing everybody even if I don’t know their name or their appellation, whether they’re my aunt or my grandma’s sister,” Reyes said. “I don’t think my relatives realize I’m an adult yet. I age every year, and they’re always so surprised about it, so that’s also very fun to witness.”

When physics sophomore Jose Wui moved to Singapore from the Philippines at four, he said he celebrated Christmas more simply. 

“My mom, dad, helper and I would just have a meal together and exchange gifts because (Christmas) wasn’t widely celebrated in Singapore compared to the Philippines,” Wui said. “Although it’s the same routine, it felt nice and cozy.”

Now in the U.S., Wui said he spends the holidays with both his immediate and extended family, participating in a large gift giving with them every year. He said the distinct, extravagant energy of Filipino Christmases contrasts with that of other countries.

“It takes a while, like two, three hours, just to give a gift,” Wui said. “We have to take a picture, read the letter that comes with it, open the gift, show the gift to the camera, take more pictures …  It’s very loud, everyone’s laughing (and) making jokes. We do that for every single person.”

Filipinos take Christmas very seriously, Domingo said. He said his family keeps their decorations until the end of winter, the festive spirit lasting at least four months.

“Filipinos look forward to Christmas right after it ends,” Domingo said. “(After) Christmas, we already start counting (down to) when it’s gonna happen again.”