September 1! You know what that means, right?
It’s Christmas time!
The Philippines is the only predominately Christian country in Southeast Asia, and they pride themselves on having the longest Christmas season in the region, if not in the whole world. The “ber” months are given over to Christmas time!
Halloween is not a widespread holiday here, yet, though it is spreading. And there is no Thanksgiving. So there is nothing getting in the way between the holiday-heavy month of August and Christmas. Might as well spend nearly 4 months celebrating it.
You have to understand that it’s not a whole-hog celebration for the full 4 months. Basically, you will start to hear Christmas music on the store sound systems and Christmas decorations will start showing up in the stores at the start of September. The major decorations won’t really show up until mid-November,
Christmas trees are becoming increasingly popular, but the traditional centerpiece for Christmas decorating here is the parol. (Pronounced like the English word “parole.”) They used to be made from paper and bamboo, and lit with oil lamps. Understandably, they have shifted to wire covered with plastic or shell (capiz) with electric lights. They can be garish or elegant, depending on the style. This decoration is unique to the Philippines. Follow this link to a video on YouTube to see examples and learn a bit about how they are made and the history of the parol.
November is also when bazaars will start cropping up everywhere on the weekends. It’s a great time to shop.
Oh, man, is it a great time to shop.
The bazaars will be a great place to find imported foods, hard to find toys, IKEA items, locally produced goods from throughout the country, over-runs from the many clothing manufacturers in the country, items for the home, etc. It is my happy time. Really, don’t do your Christmas shopping until you’ve had a chance to go to a few of the bigger bazaars, because they usually have a lot of stuff that can’t be found in the malls.
Focus, Annie, focus… This is supposed to be a general Christmas entry…
Ok. Sorry. I just really like bazaars. I am actually writing this entry in mid-August, even though you won’t see it for a few more weeks. When we get closer to bazaar season, I will post specifically about them.
So, September is mostly just music and decorations for sale. In November, places start to decorate more and more and bazaar season starts. Then December hits. December is full-on Christmas. You really need to prepare yourself for December.
You really need to prepare yourself. Mentally. Financially. Mentally. It can be quite a drain. Especially if you are not big into socializing. Because, here’s the deal: There will be parties. Oh, yes. There will be parties.
There will be company parties the likes of which you have never seen. If you are here for a major international company, it is not unheard of for them to rent a coliseum for the day. There will be singing, dancing, performers, food, music, more singing, more dancing, for a day. (I am not kidding when I say this: take earplugs with you. If you don’t need them, great, but sound systems are notoriously too loud at these events.) Different locations or groups within the company will come prepared to perform. They will have fully choreographed dance numbers. You may even see groups randomly practicing in parking lots throughout the month of December. If you belong to a church here, there will be a church party that will last upwards of 5 hours. Friends will have parties at their homes and invite you to be there, and they will also last 5ish hours and have performers and/or karaoke. I have heard Americans whine about having 2-3 Christmas parties to make it to in December. You may every well end up with that many in a week.
The love for the Christmas party is intense here. It is looked forward to all year. Knowing how crazy December can get, we once thought we were doing our employees a kindness by offering them all a bonus in lieu of the party that year. They unanimously turned us down. Not one preferred the idea of a bonus to the party. It is a big deal.
In addition to the party, all employees in the country are given a 13th month of pay. If you are an employer, it is your responsibility to know how this works. There is a deadline for it’s disbursement. If you are unclear on the rules, google to learn more, or ask your bookkeepers. If your employee hasn’t been with you a full year, you can prorate their 13th month payment, but you really need to read up on the legalities of the 13th month requirement.
Household staff used to be exempt from 13th month. I do not know if this has changed. I have not bothered to check, because we always just give them a 13th month payment anyway, because we are not jerks. I mean, they are washing our underwear by hand, for Pete’s sake. They should get a Christmas bonus. In addition to the 13th month, I usually spend about P1000 each for gifts for my household staff and about P400-P500 each for their immediate family members (spouse and children). We typically will also give them something for their Christmas dinner, like a ham, cheese ball, and fruit salad and cream (which they can combine for a popular dessert.) We also typically give them two or three days off, more if they decide to take their “big” vacation of the year at that time. I know people who do more for their household staff, and I know people who do less. I offer our experiences as an example only.
As far as the other gifts you should plan for, it adds up pretty quick. I spend a lesson’s worth of cash to get gifts for the various tutors and coaches who work with my children. I work with large groups of people at our church, but want to show them some love at Christmas, so I tend to look for something in the P30-P50 range for those gifts, because I do need to get so many of them, and they really are just meant to be a token of affection. (In the past I have done bookmarks that have inspirational quotes on them, beaded necklaces, that sort of thing.) For good acquaintances, I will spend P50-P100 each on a selection of things and have them wrapped in my purse with me at all times, because you never know when someone is going to spring a gift on you, and they may come from people you don’t expect gifts from at all. So, it’s good to have a general, all-purpose gift on hand to give them. (Are you getting a sense now for why I love the bazaars so much? One-stop shopping for all these odds-and-ends gifts!) For friends, I buy as I would normally, keeping an eye out for something I know they will like that won’t break my budget. We have some families we are close with who have kids. We usually get gifts for each of their kids and either a combined gift for the parents or separate gifts, depending on what we settle on. There is so much gifting involved here at Christmas time that one friend and I have decided that the best gift we can get one another is not having to get each other a gift. One less thing on my to-get list is the best of all the gifts.
If you don’t live in a richy-rich community with security who prevents it, you may get carolers (or straight up beggars) who come around to sing. They will expect cash for the song or simply because they are there asking for it. My village doesn’t allow this, but there seems to always be a few people who try to hit as many houses as they can before security makes them stop. I do have a friend who lives in a village where this is common. She has told me before that when the school boys come by, if she doesn’t give them at least P5 each, they throw rocks at her house, and that they come by daily until their Christmas break from school is over. I’d like to think this is just one particularly naughty group of boys, but I cannot say.
Americans get wrapped up (no pun intended) in the gifts at Christmas time. While there is a lot of gifting at Christmas time here, it’s usually not pricey stuff, and for Filipinos, the non-religious celebration aspect of Christmas is really more about the party, food, and family. Christmas starts on Christmas Eve if you are Catholic, when you go to midnight mass, followed by the Noche Buena feast. Round foods and red foods are often on the menu for this meal, showing the Chinese influence on the Christmas time traditions. Hams are formed into a ball, and the queso bola is a giant cheese ball covered in red wax that I have never seen actually be eaten at the feast itself, but it sure makes for yummy mac & cheese after. People are up into the wee small hours of the morning, and then sleep in on Christmas Day. When they wake up, it’s time to make the rounds to family members’ homes, eating at each stop. (This all may sound rather familiar to those in Mexico.)
Gifts may or may not be exchanged, depending on the income level of the family. Santa is a popular decoration here, but no one particularly expects him to visit. It is awful hot here for reindeer, after all. But I have heard he will still make a special trip to visit the kids who have moved here from places where they are used to his visits and who have been good kids through the year.
Virtually no where will be open on Christmas Eve or Christmas. So, plan accordingly. It is a major time-off in the Philippines, and you may find that some businesses just shut down until the New Year. There are still plenty that remain open, though, so you’ll be able to keep your kids entertained during their school break.
I am almost positive more will come to mind about Christmas as the time progresses, but for now, this should be enough of an overview to help you know what to expect and to start budgeting and planning accordingly.