Christmas may be celebrated around the world, but Filipinos have a set of Yuletide traditions that are all their own.

Parols, simbang gabi, four-month-long celebrations — those are just a few of the things you won’t find in any other country. When we say that Filipinos take their Christmas seriously, we mean seriously.

But have you ever wondered about the stories behind Filipino Christmas traditions? Where did the parol come from? Why do we have the simbang gabi and noche buena? And why do we celebrate Christmas as early as September?

Okay, we don’t know the answer to that last question. But we do know that:

5. Noche buena came about because of fasting.

In the Philippines, noche buena has a special significance. And not just because it’s an excuse to ditch your diet.

Back in the 16th century, during the early days of the Spanish colonial period, Filipino Christians were required to fast until the morning of Christmas Day. Since they were also required to attend mass before Christmas, you can imagine how hungry they were once they got home.

Luckily, Filipinos are an ingenious bunch. After a few years of enduring the rumbling and tumbling of their stomachs, they thought to themselves: “Hm, the friars said we’re supposed to fast until Christmas morning. So if midnight is considered part of the next day’s morning, that means we’re allowed to eat on midnight, right?”

And so, the tradition of breaking diets every Christmas Eve was born.

4. The first belen used live actors.

You see it everywhere: in malls, houses and school plays. The belen, also known as the nativity scene, is arguably the most iconic symbol of Christmas. After all, it depicts the reason we celebrate the Yuletide season in the first place.

You can thank St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most famous saints in history, for that. Aside from founding the Franciscan order and being the first person to experience stigmata, St. Francis also created the first nativity scene in 1223. His version was staged in a cave close to Greccio in Italy, and featured live actors as well as animals.

St. Francis’ nativity scene was so popular, it spread to the rest of the Christian world. Eventually, the actors and animals were replaced with statues, and different versions of the belen have been staged since. Today, the belen endures as a reminder that Christmas is more than just about material gifts, which was what St. Francis intended all along.

3. The parol originated from the piñata.

No Filipino Christmas is complete without the parol. Named after the Spanish word for “lantern,” the parol is a Filipino creation through and through. Or is it?

Traditionally, Francisco Estanislao is credited with the five-point star design for the parol. However, the origins of the parol date back as early as the 1300s, when the Spaniards brought the piñata to Mexico from Italy, before eventually bringing it to the Philippines.

According to the book “A Child’s Pasko: Christmas in the Philippines,” parols were originally used to light the way to church in celebration of the Misa de Aguinaldo, which was held every December 16 and ended with the Misa de Gallo on December 25.

If that sounds like the simbang gabi, that’s because it is! Speaking of which…

2. Simbang Gabi was born from a compromise made by Spanish-era farmers

Today, the simbang gabi is an annual tradition for Filipinos hoping to make their wishes come true. But, as you might’ve guessed by now, it wasn’t always that way.

After the Spanish succeeded in conquering most of the Philippines, they forced the natives to perform polo y servicio or forced labor, among other things. One of the things they labored on was harvesting rice, coconut, sugarcane and other agricultural products for their encomendero overlords.

If you remember your history, the encomenderos weren’t exactly kind to Filipino farmers who “underperformed.” So the farmers toiled all day, even if it meant enduring the hot tropical sun, just so they could produce enough to satisfy their employers.

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For nine days leading up to Christmas Eve, many Filipino churchgoers head to Mass at dawn for Simbang Gabi. Despite the tradition’s pre-sunrise start time, “lots of people — girls and boys, young or old, rich or poor — flock to the church to celebrate,” student Wilfredo Lenterna Jr. (@willjr42) says. Lanterns, lights and ornaments decorate the church interior, while outdoor vendors sell native delicacies after Mass. An active member of his church’s youth organization, Wilfredo and his friends sell food to fund programs for those less fortunate. “Celebrating Christmas is sure fun in the Philippines, especially when you put faith, family and fun together,” Wilfredo says. To see more photos of this holiday tradition, explore #simbanggabi. Photo by @willjr42

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Despite being tired from their labors, the farmers managed to find time to attend the nightly novena every Christmas season. Seeing this, the priests realized how devoted the farmers were to performing their duties as Christians. And so, they began to hold mass in the early mornings, ensuring that the farmers will have time to go to church before the day’s work.

Needless to say, the tradition still continues today, and that’s how the early morning misa de gallos came to be.

1. Secret Santa (a.k.a. Monito-Monita) may have come from Scandinavia

You know the drill: Pick out a random name, buy a gift based on a theme (“something soft and cute”), and hope that your monito/monita will like your gift.

No one really knows how Secret Santa started. However, one source points to Scandinavia, where the tradition is called “Julklapp.” Here, people leave gifts on doorsteps, knock, and then run away once the door’s about to open.

Although Secret Santa isn’t unique to the Philippines, there’s no denying its appeal as a tradition. After all, guessing who exactly is “Fluffy McWuffles” is always a fun game to play.

Have any interesting (his)tories of Christmas traditions you’d like to share? Share them in the comments below!

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