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MANILA: After nearly four months of celebrations, Filipino Catholics started on Saturday evening their main Christmas feast — for many, the most awaited time of the year.

The Philippines has the longest Christmas festive season in the world. It formally begins on Dec. 16, when people start to go to the first of nine pre-dawn masses, but in many households, the festive season kicks off in September and runs through October, November, and December.  

“We call it the ‘ber-months’ because traditionally, during these ‘ber months’ the climate becomes cooler,” said Nestor Castro, a professor of anthropology at the University of the Philippines.

“On the radio, you would hear Christmas carols already starting in September.”

Most often, the first voice to bring the songs is that of Jose Mari Chan, one of the country’s most renowned balladeers who is popularly dubbed as the King of Philippine Christmas Carols.

“He has been an icon with regards to Christmas carols. So, once you hear his songs, you know it’s already the Christmas season and this is played on the radio even in shopping malls and other places,” Castro told Arab News.

Around that time, department stores also start to stock their shelves with Christmas items and Christmas decorations begin to pop up in public places. At home, people begin to hang ornamental paper lanterns known as parols.

“These are Christmas lanterns. It’s a five-pointed star lantern with two tails wrapped in colored Japanese paper, and now we have plastic versions as well as capiz shells. And we have parols made from Pampanga, which are giant electric lanterns,” Castro said.

“It’s a Christian symbol, but the design of the parol is unique to the Philippines.”

The parol is traditionally hung at the windows of houses and along the streets. It symbolizes the star of Bethlehem that guided the three magi, or the three kings, to the newly born Jesus.

For nine consecutive days, until Christmas Day, Philippine Catholics attend early morning mass and are treated to puto bumbong, purple rice cakes, which are traditionally sold by street vendors only during the season.

On Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, Filipinos gather with their families for the Noche Buena.

“This is a Spanish word that means ‘good night’ or ‘prosperous night.’ This is when family members gather together and share a meal on Christmas Eve, and there will be certain types of food that are specially served during the Noche Buena. So, you don’t normally eat this on a regular occasion, but only on special occasions,” Castro said.

Noche Buena dinner comes after Midnight Mass. For Felinor Baltazar, attending it was something she would never miss.

“Because that’s when you welcome the birth of Jesus Christ,” she said. “For most Catholics, Christmas is not complete if you do not attend the Midnight Mass. Since I was a child, we have been doing that. Then, when you get home, that’s when you share the meal for the Noche Buena with the whole family.”

For the family of Priam Nepomuceno, a government worker, it was the most important day of the year.

“We always look forward to our get-together. Filipinos are family oriented and what brings the family closer together is holidays and food, and food related to holidays,” he said.

“We’re keeping the family tradition of getting together for this special occasion and you can’t be absent.”

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