In the Philippines, Christmas is a season in the real meaning of the word. For twenty-two long, lively days, December 16 to January 6, the devout Filipinos express the spirit of Christmas with a series of Masses, pageants, and festivals to the background of unending music by carolers and brass bands.
Celebrations begin at dawn on December 16, when townspeople are awakened by the pealing of church bells, heralding the first of a novena of dawn Masses. Many services begin at four A.M., thus the name, Misa de Gallo (since the Mass presumably starts at the first cock’s crow).
Following the service, streets begin to show signs of festivity. People bundled in warm coats pour from the church, stopping at nearby stalls for tea and warm bibingka (rice cakes). They talk with friends, walk leisurely home, or join a group of wandering carolers.
At night, star lanterns and strings of multicolored lights shine over windows and doorways. Lights are everywhere, illuminating the town plaza, public buildings, and trees. On Christmas Eve, in the town of San Fernando in Pampanga, forty-four miles from Manila, lavishly decorated star lanterns, measuring fifteen to thirty feet, are paraded in a contest to find the most elegant, gigantic, and colorful lantern in the land.
In many Tagalog towns, one of the most impressive pageants in Christendom, panunuluyan, is staged each Christmas Eve. Characters dressed as the holy couple re-enact the search for shelter on the night Christ was born. As the pair wander through town,knocking on doors, townspeople follow them. Shortly before midnight, the procession-which has increased to include almost everyone in town-arrives at the church, where they knock and find shelter. There the Nativity story is relived. Goats and lambs nestle in the straw, richly dressed Magi bring gifts, and proud Filipino children in white robes and cellophane wings are angels for one evening.