The Republic of the Philippines is a populous island nation in Southeast Asia that is rich with history and traditions. Nearly 97 million people call its 7,107 different islands home. The two main islands are Luzon, which lies to the north, and Mindanao, which lies to the south. The country is over 100,000 square miles in size. That is smaller than the state of California, which only has a population of just 38 million people. The primary language is Filipino, a combination of native Tagalog and other linguistic elements.
Over 10 million Filipinos live overseas; they live in different countries either as permanent residents or as temporary workers. Nearly 4 million of those Overseas Filipinos are in the United States alone.
The Philippines were named in honor of King Philip II of Spain in 1543, and the islands were ruled for over three centuries by Spain. Around the turn of the 20th century, the United States took control following a war with Spain. The Philippines finally gained independence following World War II.
Filipino culture is influenced by its Asian origins and its Spanish and American past. The population of the country is largely of ethnic Malay origin; there is also a small but significant Chinese minority. However, the vast majority of the people practice Roman Catholicism, which was brought to the islands by the Spanish. City planning, architecture, and place names also exhibit traces of the long-standing Spanish influence.
Cities, towns, and neighborhoods hold festivals – or fiestas, as it is said in the Spanish language – to commemorate different important days. The feast day of a patron saint is a typical reason to celebrate, although many of these celebrations have roots in earlier native rituals. Some festivals mark the passing of the seasons, for instance, or seek to bring fertility to childless couples.
On the day of the fiesta, the neighborhood will be filled with feasting on favorite foods, music, and dancing. The day might kick off with a religious observation and continue with parades. The town will prepare extensively, from cooking to decorating the street with banners and lanterns. There is likely a fiesta occurring somewhere in the Philippines on any given day – with one exception. Christmas is celebrated exuberantly nationwide! You will find Christmas celebrations in any town.
The Panagbenga Festival is held in Baguio City in February to celebrate flower season, for instance. There are floral floats, concerts, and street parties to ring in the season.
The Feast of San Clemente is celebrated in Angono with “higantes,” or “giant” papier mache figures. Angono was long ago owned as a hacienda (or estate) by one Spaniard nobleman. He decreed – from his home in Spain – that only the San Clemente fiesta could be celebrated due to tough economic times. Not to be cowed, the town residents celebrated the festival by constructing large mocking effigies of their absent landlord. This tradition continues to this day. Now these giants can measure up to twelve feet high and five feet wide. They are paraded down the street as townsfolk spray water on the revelers.
The food of the Philippines is influenced by local tradition and Spanish cuisine. Coconuts, plantains, mangoes, and fish are all common ingredients; additionally, it is said that no meal in the Philippines is complete without rice, which can be gluten free.
Popular dishes include lumpia, which are similar to spring rolls and egg rolls in Chinese cuisine. Pancit – or noodles – are another culinary loan from China. Lechon, or suckling pig, is the national dish. The pig is put on a spit and roasted over charcoal. Cocido and pochero are stews made of meats and vegetables. Adobo – which means a marinade – is a way of marinating meat, seafood, or vegetables in a combination of vinegar, soy sauce, and garlic and then cooking it.
Unique among Asian cultures, the Filipinos do not use chopsticks. Instead, they use a fork and a spoon to eat. Rice and all the other ingredients can be pushed onto the spoon, which is held in the right hand, using the fork, which is held in the left hand. This yields the perfect combination of every flavor in each bite. The tender stewed meats can be cut using the side of the spoon. Eating with one’s hands is also accepted – this method is called kamayan from the Malay word for “hand.” Each bite is assembled atop a nugget of rice and is pushed into the mouth using the thumb.
New Year’s Eve Traditions
Ringing in the New Year in the Philippines bears some resemblance to the Chinese New Year. Celebrants should make as much noise as possible in order to scare off evil spirits, so there are fireworks and people bang pots and pans. Lights everywhere should be turned on so the new year will be bright, and doors and windows are opened to let in good luck. If you want prosperity in the new year, wear polka dots! Their circular shape harkens back to the shape of coins. And children should jump up and down twelve times and midnight in order to encourage their growth.
For dinner, pancit (noodles) are served to signify long life. Eggs are served as a symbol of new life. So good fortune will stick around, dishes are made using malagkit, or sticky rice. Fish and chicken are avoided because these animals scrounge for food – you do not want to be scrounging for your food, too, in the new year! Most importantly twelve different round fruits are served – fruits like oranges, cantaloupes, and especially ubas, or purple grapes. Each one symbolizes a month of prosperity in the coming year!
Christmas in the Philippines
The Filipino Christmas season extends far beyond December 25th. It can start weeks before and does not end until the Feast of the Three Kings in early January. The Christmas lantern, or parol, is shaped like a star with five points. It is made from a bamboo or rattan frame that is covered with tissue paper. A light is placed inside to illuminate it. There are Nativity sets and Christmas trees too. Christmas gifts even get their own word in Tagalog – pamasko.
Traditional Catholics will attend a novena – a series of nine masses – beginning December 16th. The masses are held at a pre-dawn hour, early in the morning, and afterwards the worshippers eat breakfast together. Salabat is a traditional warm ginger tea that is drunk. Bibingka is a thick yellow rich cake that is eaten.
On Christmas Morning, Filipinos wear new clothes or their best outfit and visit family. Children will pay respect to their elders by kissing or pressing the adult’s hand to their forehead in a custom called “mano po.”
The Balikbayan Box
Filipinos who live and work abroad are known as “balikbayans.” They send home balikbayan boxes to family in the Philippines. The custom is a way for those living abroad to share their prosperity and stay in touch with loved ones. The boxes can contain anything the sender thinks those back home might want. They could be novelty items, or items that are too expensive to buy in the Philippines, or any thoughtful or useful gift. The government sets a value limit of $500 on the contents of each box.
The balikbayan box is a modern manifestation of the old Filipino tradition of pasalubong. This is the custom of bringing souvenirs and gifts to family after a period of being away.
The Filipino Wedding
Before there can be a perfect wedding, there must first be a proposal. The proposal – or pamanhikan – involves the groom and his parents asking the parents of the bride for their consent. The date is set, and the details of the celebration begin to emerge. June is the preferred month for weddings. Typically, the groom’s family pays the bills.
The engaged couple will then perform pa-alam, or wedding announcement visits. The couple visits the homes of relatives and delivers the good news – and the wedding invitations – in person.
The bride typically wears a Western-style white gown. The groom wears a barong tagalog, a traditional button-up shirt made of a lightweight fabric, paired with a black pair of pants.
The typical ceremony includes a Catholic mass that is preceded by the groom greeting guests. The bride arrives later and meets the groom. The bride will typically hold a rosary during the ceremony along with her bridal boquet of flowers.
There is an exchange of wedding rings. The groom also gives to his bride 13 wedding coins, or arrhae, which symbolize his promise to provide for her materially. The number 13 comes from the number of apostles plus their leader Jesus. The 13 coins can also be seen as standing for different virtues like patience, trust, and forgiveness. A veil and cord are draped over the couple to symbolize their binding together. After the ceremony, a pair of doves may be released as a wish for marital peace and unity.
Tagalog is the fifth most spoken language in the U.S., after English, Spanish, Chinese, and French. Filipino traditions and language unite these people across the globe, from Manila to Los Angeles to Madrid.