It’s Christmas in September for Filipinos in the UAE

The world's longest Christmas season has begun

By Kirstin Bernabe-Santos

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Published: Fri 10 Sep 2021, 7:15 PM

Last updated: Fri 1 Sep 2023, 10:37 AM

[Editor's Note: This article was first published in September 2021, introducing Filipinos' unique Christmas traditions to our readers in the UAE and beyond. We are sharing it again as the world's longest Christmas season officially begins today, September 1.]

That's the Buraga family. And last weekend, they raced against the clock — as they were late to put up their Christmas tree. That was September 3.

“For us, the tree should be up by September 1. It’s a family tradition we grew up with back home in the Philippines, passed on from one generation to the next,” said Mark Buraga, a Filipino expat who lives with his wife Aisa, their two children, and his sisters-in-law in Dubai.

The Filipino Christmas begins as soon as the -Ber months roll in, running for about 128 days until Three Kings’ Day, sometimes even reaching 166.

At this time of the year, countdowns would have already started in the Philippines. Lanterns would be lighting up streets and balconies. Carols would echo from malls to jeepneys and neighbourhood stores.

And one particular song would be played everywhere:

This 1990 track titled Christmas in Our Hearts has become so iconic that Jose Mari Chan — the musician who wrote and recorded the song — pops up as a meme on nearly every Filipino’s social media feed come September:

The expats believe that stretching the Yuletide celebrations to over a quarter of the year is rooted in Filipinos’ sunny disposition, and their ability to find and create joy out of the mundane.

“We Filipinos are one of the happiest people despite the circumstances that we may encounter. And Christmas is the happiest season of the year. Every time it comes around, we wish it never ends,” said Minerva Maer, an architect in Dubai. Even her daughter Francine knows the tradition by heart:

“We would like that special, loving and fun-filled spirit to linger longer,” said life coach Lou Olvido Parroco, who ensures that every member of her family is involved in the annual tree-lighting activity.

Nesty Amante, an engineer in Dubai, is also proud of this custom. Last Saturday, he and his wife Dyan excitedly dressed their tree in beige, white and silver for their little boy. When asked why they start the season early, here's what the couple said:

>> Tracing the tradition's origin

What many Filipinos do not know, however, is that there could be more to this custom than what they thought.

Anthropologist Felipe Jocano Jr said it could have evolved as commercialisation grew, with malls egging on the community to start shopping early.

“Merchants could have thought of coming up with early promotions so that more people could be encouraged to shop for gifts in advance. It could also be a way to trim their inventories,” he said.

But Filipino-American historian Kirby Pábalan-Táyag Aráullo argues that while such a marketing stunt ‘makes sense’, some elders and scholars have said the practice has been around even before the rise of malls.

It dates back to pre-colonial times, Araullo said — way before the explorers of a Spanish expedition brought Christianity to the country in 1521.

“(In the Philippines,) September coincides with the coming of Amian, the North Wind, which, for our ancestors, marks the beginning of the festive season of rebirth and rebuilding … and the end of the typhoon season,” Araullo explained in a vlog he shared on YouTube in 2019.

This September wind, which is usually felt until February, also comes with the arrival of the ‘sacred’ birds that eat up all the locusts and pests in the fields, saving the rice harvest for the rest of the year — clearly a reason to celebrate, he added.

And when Christianity arrived, many of the traditional festivities survived. Araullo, who is also a culture bearer and content creator, gave a few examples:

>> Bringing the tradition to the Emirates

Over the 14 years that they have been living in the UAE, the Buraga family has never skipped the September Christmas preparations, especially now that they have two kids at home.

“We wanted the children to enjoy it and remember it the way we did, so they can keep the tradition alive for the next generations,” said engineer Cyreen Angolluan, Mark’s sister-in-law.

In the family’s Yuletide kick-off this year, their five-year-old Lucio had the most important role:

“Since I was a kid, my parents have made sure that the youngest in the family takes charge of the Christmas star. So, we still do that now,” Cyreen said.

Filipinos in every corner of the world would agree that nothing beats the festive season back home. So, at a time when taking a flight to Manila has become challenging because of the pandemic, expats do everything to recreate the mood, the vibe, the spirit.

“We still find creative ways to feel at home. We exchange gifts, cook traditional dishes, attend Simbang Gabi masses online. We can celebrate from afar because the Yuletide spirit stays in our hearts,” Amante said.

For the Maer family, their Christmas tree was an antidote to the ‘fear and uncertainty’ that Covid-19 brought in 2020. “We put it up in September last year because for us, it is a symbol of hope and a reminder that God is bigger than any pandemic,” said Minerva.

Parroco agreed, saying: “I think Covid-19 brought us to a deeper reflection that life is really precious and really short. So, we must strive to live each day of our life like it’s Christmas.”

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