The Christmas holidays are always some of the most special times when in Manila. Even as early as October, you’ll hear Christmas carols start to pipe through department stores and malls already! While trying economic conditions have blunted the extravagant decors that once lined avenues and streets and decked out office buildings and mall exteriors, the spirit of the holidays has never really waned in Manila.
One of the highlights of the holidays is the bazaars and night markets that start springing up all over town. Some are very small events, but some are big ones that run for more than a month. The hours are typically extended on the few days that run up to Christmas, allowing for a leisurely last minute shopping spree all the way till midnight. You’ll surely find a very festive mood pervading these bazaars. You’ll find a lot of local delicacies for sale, as well as lots of different pastries and deli creations from home bakers and home cooks who want to try their luck in picking up an extra buck or two for the holidays. You’ll also find lots of different fare for sale, including beautiful, sparkling Christmas decors, handmade pieces of Christmas-themed handicrafts, a lot of novel, holiday display pieces, and gift items at rock bottom prices. What makes these markets unique is that you get to haggle for the best price. The best and largest bazaar is that in the World Trade Center (no, not the one in New York), which typically features a visiting Scandinavian Santa Claus and an elaborate Christmas Tree to go with it. The Greenhills Shopping Center would close down some of the streets in its compound for the weekend outdoor night markets that would often include free concerts. Other bazaars with great product selections include those in The Fort, Makati Sports Club and The Manila Polo Club.
One of the places that’s become the talk of the town in recent years is Policarpio Street in Mandaluyong City. By day, it’s a quaint neighborhood of houses, but at night, it’s transformed into a magical wonderland of dancing rooftop Santa Clauses (yes, these are real live people-no lame electronic life-size figurines). The entire street is bathed in light and throngs of visitors. Over the years, the decors of the houses have only become more elaborate, drowning the neighborhood in a festive sea of lights and Christmas carols. Here you’ll find Santa and his elves handing out candy, walk past some painstakingly detailed murals with motor-powered parts and stroll through entire indoor exhibits of dioramas depicting the Nativity story. It’s a unique place where the residents have more than succeeded in spreading the Christmas cheer to other people.
A very special tradition for the locals is attending the Christmas Eve mass at the nearest church. It’s supposedly held at midnight, to usher in the wee hours of Christmas day, but more and more masses are being offered in earlier hours, typically between 9 to 11 pm to allow families more time to spend at home. The most spectacular masses are held in the older, more elaborate churches like San Agustin or the Manila Cathedral, and typically, these masses have little kids reenacting the Nativity story of Jesus Christ, complete with a life size recreation of the manger, called the belen. Christmas songs are sung festively throughout the rite and after the mass, people typically share a noche buena outside the church, which is a midnight snack that’s free for all. Here, anyone can indulge on native delicacies including bibingka (charcoal-cooked rice cakes with a dessicated coconut topping), puto (little white rice cakes), cassava, putobumbong (sweet sticky rice that can be flavored with purple yam and is cooked in bamboo stalks and wrapped in banana leaves), and biko (sweet sticky brown rice topped with dessicated coconut). It’s a very unique way of celebrating that emphasizes the Filipino value of close family ties.
To usher in the New Year, there are many different places where people gather to watch the fireworks mark the beginning of a good year. There is usually a spectacular fireworks display in the vicinity of the Ayala malls in the central business district of Makati. A lot of people also gather to count down the New Year at The Fort, which also occasionally hosts outdoor variety shows and carnivals during Christmas. Sometimes there is also a beautiful fireworks display over Manila Bay, near Manila’s old historic district.
The holidays in Manila are not confined to a few places, and it’s not only celebrated in the span of a few days. The Christmas season is a special time whose festive nature pervades the entire city. It reflects the Filipino’s cultural and religious traditions, as well as their inherent love for merrymaking and celebration.