Thursday, December 16, 2010


There is no Christmas like Christmas in the Philippines, and the province that can claim to have the best Christmas celebration in the country is, without doubt, the province of Pampanga.
There may be other places with brighter Christmas lights, or taller Christmas trees, but here in Pampanga, we have the most unique, most enduring Christmas traditions, the richest noche buena fare, and of course, the largest and most beautiful Christmas lanterns. We even built an entire village where Christmas could literally be celebrated all year round.

Consider these: only Kapampangans hold lubenas, a quaint religious procession where the image of the patron saint is preceded by a lantern in the shape of a cross, a lantern in the shape of a fish (the ancient symbol of Christ) and 12 lanterns (representing the 12 apostles).

Right behind the santo is a final lantern, larger than all the others and behind it a chorus singing Dios te salve (Hail Mary in Spanish).

All lanterns are lit inside, producing a beautiful multi-colored luminescence, which lights up the streets and attracts onlookers and passing vehicles.

The lubenas, held for nine consecutive days before Christmas (lubenas is corruption of novena, or nine days of prayer and devotion), culminates in the maitinis on Christmas eve, when all the lantern processions from different barangays converge in front of the parish church so that all participants in the procession could attend the midnight mass.

It's a sight to behold, rarely seen and photographed because, well, even media people don't go to work on the night before Christmas.

This tradition still survives in Mabalacat, Angeles, San Fernando and some other towns in northern Pampanga and southern Tarlac.

Like the lubenas, the simbang bengi in Pampanga is also done in the nine days before Christmas, beginning December 16.

Our forefathers started this tradition as a mortification of the flesh--in those days, when an important religious festival was approaching, they prepared themselves spiritually not only by praying but also by making sacrifices.

In the case of Christmas, the sacrifice is in the form of staying up late and walking a great distance during the lantern procession, and then waking up early the very next morning to attend the dawn Mass.

Thus, unlike other Filipinos who sleep early so they can wake up early, Kapampangans deliberately worsen their sleep deprivation between the lubenas and the simbang bengi.

The simbang bengi is actually a misnomer, because the Mass is held at dawn (galingaldo or ganingaldo); today, parishioners who attend the night Masses instead of the dawn Masses are conveniently missing the point of the tradition.

In some towns in Pampanga, they still sing the pastorella--a set of liturgical songs in Latin composed in colonial times specifically for the dawn Masses.

I have very fond memories of simbang bengi in my hometown because the pastorella, sung by a choir and accompanied by violins, and performed with all the melodramatic flourish of an opera, kept me awake and entertained in those wee hours.

In fact I suspect that the Spaniards introduced the pastorella precisely to keep the drowsy Mass goers awake.

And then, of course, the giant lanterns -- the term deserves to be in capital letters because these humongous wheels of rotating kaleidoscope of colors and lights are truly world-class and one-of-a-kind.

Their sheer size, and the timing and precision with which the intricate patterns dance, and the exquisite beauty of their design--you would think they were assembled by a well-financed, well-equipped team of hundreds of engineers, computer technicians and programmers, but in reality, they are assembled only in some backyard in the barrio, by a ragtag team of local craftsmen and artisans, using tin drums, hairpins, masking tape, and a spaghetti tangle of wires--plus, of course, loads of inborn talent and wisdom handed down from generations past.

These giant lanterns of Pampanga, often dismantled after Christmas (there's no garage large enough to house them), should be preserved the way the Great Pyramids of Egypt were, because--like the pyramids--they are monuments to our ancestors' ingenuity and living proof of what folk technology can do.

And lastly, the food that is served this time of year is what makes Christmas in Pampanga truly the best in the country--from the duman whose harvest in early November coincides with the countdown to Christmas, to the tsokolati king batirul and the panara which mass goers coming home from the simbang bengi take for breakfast.

Of all the holidays in Pampanga, it is during Christmas when the dining table is most heavily laden with the best that the Kapampangan culinary tradition can offer: galantina, bringhe, asado, escabeche, estofado, afritada, mechado, menudo, azucena, pochero, relleno, morcon, lengua, etc. and the delicacies that only Kapampangans can make--turrones, sans rival, pastillas de leche, tibuk tibuk, pepalto, yemas, sanikulas, empanada, ensaimada, bobotu, pulburun, leche flan, silvana, espasol, araru, putu seco, ale ubi, bibingkang nasi, calame ubi, calame biko, sampelut, inangit, galang galang, putu lazon, kutsinta, suman tili, suman bulagta, suman ebus, patupat, alualu (Kabigting style, Corazon style, Razon style, you name it), pionono, tocino del cielo, samani, bangka bangka, batya batya, bucarillo, putung babi, taisan, plantadilla, rosquetes, mayumung kamias, mayumung kamatis, brazo de la reina, etc.

Tourists who visit Cebu can get dried mangoes, and in Iloilo they get biscocho, in Davao its durian, in Baguio its peanut brittle and in Laguna its buko pie.

Here in Pampanga, especially this time of year, there's a whole cornucopia of delicacies and pasalubong, enough to cause diabetes and get you accosted at the airport for excess baggage.

Happy Christmas to all Kapampangans and please, let's preserve our race by keeping our cholesterol levels down

Sunstar Pampanga (December, 2007)

1 comment:

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