Hey, you! 🎄
Do you ever have those moments that make you go "a-ha"? Those moments where something finally makes sense and makes you think "Hmmm ... but why didn't I think about this sooner?"
Well, I just did. 😀
I grew up in the Philippines, a country that proudly boasts to be the largest nation professing the Catholic faith in Asia. Fun fact (not really fun, but you know what I mean): the Philippines is the only country in the world where divorce is currently not legal yet. I have no comment about that for now.
For me, Christmas has always been about the birth of Jesus Christ. It's always been religious in my family. Growing up, I just assumed that the gift giving part and Santa Claus happened in link to Christ's birth because it was a very happy moment - it's the birth of the Son of God who saved us and therefore something to celebrate. I just didn't ask myself too many questions then - I just went with the flow.
Christmas in the Philippines is a whole vibe. It begins in September. The first "ber" month of the year. From there, the sights of Christmas trees and the sounds of Christmas songs make their appearance. December 16 (the day after my birthday) marks the first day of Simbang Gabi or Misa de Gallo, which is a devotional, nine-day series of masses attended by Filipino Catholics in anticipation of Christmas. It's also an early morning mass, usually at 4 or 5am. Let's not talk about how ridiculously early that is please!
That's also the period where there are lots of Christmas Parties. The 24th and 25th is mainly celebrated with family only, but Filipinos also like to celebrate with friends, colleagues, or classmates. So December becomes a whole party galore month, but honestly it's so much fun. Obviously, the eating part is my favorite but there's also the drinking, and the fun parlour games, and the Secret Santa gift exchange!
As I said, the 24th is usually celebrated with family members only. In the past, families liked to attend midnight mass, but it's gotten a bit dangerous with the firecrackers in the streets, so people prefer to avoid that by going to church earlier in the day. This allows one to prepare and cook for Noche Buena. Translated as the "Good Night", this refers to Christmas Eve where families enjoy a very special midnight Christmas dinner. You can feast on Pinoy classics such as the Christmas Ham with Pineapple Glaze, Pinoy Spaghetti, Lechon (of course), Queso de Bola, Macaroni Salad just to name a few. Indeed, tis the season to be jolly!
But I started getting confused or having questions about Christmas when I moved to France 10 years ago. Historically, Catholicism was the largest religion in France in the past. This has, however, changed through the years. France is now a secular country or as the French would say "laique". This was written into the constitution in 1905. This means: that there is no state religion, that there is freedom of religion, that no one is allowed to impose their religion on others and that no one is allowed to discriminate against anyone because of their religion. (Hence the ban on wearing visible religious symbols in schools, so that girls wearing headscarves for example, are not seen as being “different”.)
It's so different from the Philippines.
The thing is in France is that people care so little about religion nowadays. If you ask a French person (and I strongly suggest that you don't) if he or she is Catholic it is very probable that you will get answers like: I don’t know, I am baptised, but I still don’t know, I just go to church on Christmas / Easter / Wedding / Funerals or I got married in church but I have not baptised my kids. They will choose themselves later if they want to do it.
So how is Christmas celebrated in France then?
Similar to the Philippines, it is a family celebration. But what I have come to realize is that here in France, most people celebrate Santa's Christmas while in the Philippines we celebrate Jesus's Christmas.
That realisation was my a-ha moment.
Based on my own experience with my French family, we get together for Christmas Eve. For us, it's usually at my sister's house. For a long time, she invited everyone she could from both sides (including her in-laws), but everyone is grown up now and married or have partners, so she can't invite everybody anymore. So she invites whoever is free and wants to come. She prepares a really nice meal for us while I usually bring the dessert. Contrary to the buffet-style in the Philippines, French meals are sit-down composed of appetizers with drinks (usually champagne for Christmas), starters, a main dish with sides, a cheese course, and desserts, which is usually a Buche de Noel or Christmas Log Cake and fresh fruits.
My sister is a grandmother now, so someone in the family dresses up as Santa Claus and during the meal, bells can be suddenly heard from afar coming closer indicating the imminent visit of Santa Claus. The kids are excited but also a bit terrified to meet Santa. He'll ask their names, if they've been nice, and sometimes even ask for a song or a dance before distributing their gifts. Gifts that they previously chose and cut out of a toy store magazine and sent as a letter to Santa Claus earlier that month. It's cute and also touching to see the innocence and pure happiness radiating from the kids.
Close to midnight, the adults usually exchange gifts. Personally, it's becoming harder to find new gift ideas. What do you get someone who already has everything they have and need? Right? By 1am, everyone is usually in bed, peacefully sleeping, in preparation for another sit-down meal the next day. By the 26th, we are usually back home - feeling happy from spending time with family, but a bit sad that there was no mention of Jesus and his birth.
Earlier this year, I had an image of just the four of us gathered around the Christmas tree. The Husband, S, Bogart the Pug, and I. So I decided - no Noche Buena, no big family gathering, no gift exchanging. This year we would do things differently. This year we wanted it to be intimate. We decided that there would be no material gifts, but instead we would take the time to enjoy the Christmas markets and festivities together all month long. I think this is the year I've been the most number of times to the Christmas market and I loved it!
On Christmas Eve, we thought we could have dinner at the Christmas market (for one last time) before going to midnight mass, but imagine our surprise when we saw that the markets closed early (we definitely should have thought about that but anyways ...). We ended up eating horrible burgers and oily fries on the side of the street, much to the horror of the Husband, but hey we needed something in our tummies! Then, we did something for the first time - we attended midnight mass at our beautiful cathedral. A beautiful mass presided by the Archbishop which almost had me in tears a few times thanks to the angelic voices of the choir.
On Christmas day, we slowly got up from bed and played board games (which got a bit competitive! 😂), while preparing our Christmas lunch / dinner. Faux Gras, Escargots, Stuffed Chicken, Roasted Asparagus and Mushrooms (thanks to Picard Surgeles) and a Buche de Noël. It was delicious and a very traditional French Christmas meal (I'm keeping the Filipino classics for Christmas / New Year celebration with friends) in a few days.
So we didn't do anything crazy this year, but it was, according to our daughter one of the best Christmas ever. I feel the same. ❤️❤️
This Christmas was different for us. I don't know if it was a Santa's Christmas or a Jesus' one, but it definitely was our Christmas.
So how was your Christmas? How do you usually celebrate?