Inside a knick-knack shop in Quezon City, Philippines, strings of silver, gold and rainbow tinsel shimmer like technicolour tentacles from the rafters, while Santa Claus and a caravan of reindeer are aloft among a host of multiracial angels. On a crowded shelf by the entrance, a plastic Baby Jesus smiles serenely from a manger, watched by Mary and Joseph figurines cast in fibreglass. The Christmas items have been on sale since early August – not a day too soon in Asia’s biggest Catholic nation.
‘We were actually quite late in setting up our Christmas merchandise,’ says Moy Dayan, whose family owns two stalls at the Dapitan Market, a trove of gift shops in this largely residential slice of metro Manila. ‘We usually sell home decor items from late January to June, then we shift to Christmas accessories from July to January.’
It may seem unbelievable to the rest of the world, but the holly and the ivy come out early in the Philippines – earlier than anywhere else on the planet. Traditional star-shaped lanterns, or parol, are placed alongside giant, complex creations made of plastic and local shells called capiz, which are set aglow from the inside with blinking lights for a head-spinning, hypnotic pinwheel effect. Pop-up shops along major streets sell handmade or artificial trees, fairy lights and all manner of Yuletide decor sourced locally or abroad, while cavernous malls hold Christmas sales.
Expect public transport – from taxis and buses to the ubiquitous jeepney vans – to fuel the festive mood with dashboard-mounted mini-tableaux of nativity scenes or the odd dancing Santa Claus. At pedestrian crossings, don’t be surprised if your taxi is mobbed by a gaggle of kids carolling – belting out typically mangled Christmas songs, for a reasonable fee, one would hope. You may even pass by Dayan’s stall, which he mans with about five employees.
‘The place gets really mad with shoppers from the last week of October to the third week of December,’ he says. ‘Those who want to shop here should wear shorts and light clothing, as it can get steamy with all the pushing and shoving. Shoppers should also visit other shops to check on prices and the quality of the merchandise. We offer big discounts after 25 December, obviously.’
Their Santa Claus figurines – which come in hanging, table-top and musical varieties – tend to be hot sellers. Lanterns using LED lights also do very well. ‘The LED lights are cheaper and the electricity bill should be next to nothing,’ says Dayan, whose annual Christmas wish is for a sales bonanza.
While Christmas is a celebration cherished by a large portion of the world, no country does it quite like the Philippines, which has the most elaborate and the longest Christmas period – a superlative attributed not only to its population’s strong Catholicism but also to the people’s love of a good party.
‘Filipinos are born to celebrate everything in life,’ says Arturo P Boncato Jr, assistant secretary at the Department of Tourism. ‘Our fiestas speak of our deeply rooted value of thanksgiving. We offer back to our creator, Allah, and Magbabaya not only our successes but also our tribulations.’
‘Our celebrations, albeit often showy and full of fanfare, are deeply spiritual and rituals of renewal,’ he adds. ‘Christmas is the most important season in the Philippines and finding ways to celebrate it to a stretch can be a breeze.’
But the season is hard work for those who plan and design the annual festive displays. In the business district of Makati, the best Christmas gift for veteran event stylist Zenas Pineda would be for her team’s Christmas decorations along the posh Ayala Avenue to withstand the typhoons that pummel the Philippines in the final quarter of each year.
‘We start the process of designing as early as February,’ says Pineda, who is also charged with the Christmas decor for Ayala malls. ‘Final concept and design usually get approved by the early part of June and we prepare the actual mock-up in June to August. Production takes about two months and we install them by mid-October. Lighting or launch is usually first week of November, and we take them down right after New Year, unless requested otherwise.’
Pineda’s 40-strong team – which includes illustrators, engineers and electricians – handles the design, production and installation of the decorations based on a set budget. One recent year, the Makati streetlights were themed after the country’s centuries-old churches and feature clusters of the traditional star-shaped lanterns and shimmering curtains of capiz shells.
Another attraction that Pineda works on is the Ayala Triangle Gardens Lights and Sounds show, a nightly shimmering display that combines music and lighting effects. Manny Blas II, head of Ayala Land’s Makati Project Development, points out that the holiday light show has been compared to displays in Copenhagen and Paris. ‘As we light the major thoroughfares of the Makati Central Business District and fill the Ayala Triangle Gardens with our display of lights, we instantly put the Makati community into a festive mood,’ he says. ‘This is why Pinoys go crazy over Christmas.’
The best time to check out the Makati streetlights and the Triangle Gardens Lights and Sounds show is in the evening, when road traffic has eased. Araneta Center in Cubao, and the bay-front promenade behind the Mall of Asia along Manila Bay, are other popular places to admire light installations.
But Christmas in the Philippines has never been solely about decorations, shopping or even faith. Ask Dayan how a visitor can really experience a Philippine Christmas, he has a very personal suggestion – one that’s about family and friends: ‘I’d take them to a Filipino home where they can see how we exchange gifts, feast on queso de bola (a big ball of cheese), and see a Filipino Christmas tree. I’m sure they’ll be back next year.’
This article was originally published in December 2015; and was updated in October 2019