Photo courtesy of Children International

The Christmas season brings out the singer in us. So, just where did our Christmas carols come from?

Ang Pasko ay sumapit
Tayo ay mangagsiawit
Ng magagandang himig
Dahil sa Diyos ay pag-ibig
Nang si Kristo’y isilang
May tatlong haring nagsidalaw
At ang bawa’t isa ay nagsipaghandog
Ng tanging alay

Christmas is here
Let’s all sing
Beautiful hymns
Because God is love
When Christ was born
Three kings came to visit
Each one is offered a gift

No self-respecting Pinoy would be caught dead at Christmas time not knowing the lyrics of this tune and others that compose the repertoire of “karoling songs.” They bring to mind and heart the memories and feelings of wonderful Christmases celebrated with families and friends. Little boys and girls with tansan (bottle cap) maracas, takip ng kaldero (pot cover) cymbals, gongs and lata ng (tin of) ice cream drums singing away house after house in exchange for a few coins are an integral part of Pasko. In fact, if there’s one thing that’s sure to make anyone of the nearly eight million Filipinos overseas nostalgic and missing home, it’s the Christmas carols.

By September 1, Philippine radio stations start their countdown towards the most awaited day of the year. There’s a slight slack at the end of October for All Saints Day and All Soul’s Day or Todos los Santos. But come November 3, it’s all systems go and jubilant songs reign supreme on the airwaves for the whole two months that Christmas is celebrated in the country. While there’s a multitude of carols from all over the world, these songs are unique in the way they strike a chord in every Filipino’s heart, making one yearn for things dear and familiar.

“It is not clear when, where and how Pinoy carols originated,” says the singer, composer and Metropop 2001 second place winner La Verne Ducut. “In fact, while doing background for our album ‘Karoling’ we came up empty-handed as to the how, when and who composed the first Filipino Christmas carol.”

It’s not really surprising, as I had the same experience while I was doing research for this article. Historians say that the same is true for carols from all over the world.

No self-respecting Pinoy would be caught dead at Christmas time not knowing the lyrics of ‘Ang Pasko ay Sumapit.’

“There is no account of the first man-made carol. But I guess when the angels sang “Glory to God in the Highest” at Baby Jesus’ birth—that qualifies as a just and apt beginning of caroling,” says Ducut.

Carols also have the longest history of all customs practiced during the holidays. While it is believed that St. Francis attempted to renew the common person’s faith in God some 1,200 years after Christ by singing songs about His birth, not all Christmas songs are religious in origin. Carols have evolved to be neither secular nor particularly sacred but showing fragments of the culture and social life of the people singing them.

Kay sigla ng gabi ang lahat ay kay saya
Nagluto ang ate ng manok at tinola
Sa bahay ng kuya ay mayroong
Litsunan pa
Ang bawa’t tahanan may
Handing iba’t iba

Tayo na giliw, magsalo na tayo
Mayroon na tayong tinapay at keso
Di ba Noche Buena sa gabing ito
At bukas ay araw ng Pasko

The night is so lively
Everyone is so happy
Elder sister is cooking ginger chicken soup
At older brother’s house,
There is even roast pig.
Each home has its own feast.

Let’s join them, love
We already have bread and cheese
For the midnight feast tonight
Tomorrow is Christmas Day.

“I guess Christmas carols are made much the same way that other songs are made,” explains Ducut. “People are moved by a certain emotion, inspired by a certain idea, touched by a certain person. And from there, it just flows almost instinctively into words and music.” Ducut has composed a number of Christmas songs, five of which are featured in the album “Karoling.”

Ducut adds that there are so many Christmas songs or carols because Christmas is one of the best subjects to write songs about. It has such a positive meaning-the birth of our Savior, His coming to offer His life for us. “This is the ultimate love story and when you talk about love, there is almost always a song not too far behind,” says Ducut.

Photo by Zymon Bacongallo

From its believed origin when the Spaniards came, the Filipino carol has evolved in the 435 years Christmas has been celebrated in the country. Starting from mostly religious songs of the Spanish friars, it has become a mirror that reflects the various influences and experiences of our country and people. From “Feliz Navidad” to the “12 days of Christmas” by the Europeans, America’s “Santa Claus is coming to Town,” original Filipino Christmas carols have developed their own identity. Some speak of the uniqueness of our celebration as in the Misa de Gallo, describing the traditional early morning masses. Noche Buena speaks of the importance of family togetherness despite having no grand meals for Christmas dinner. “Pasko na Naman” and “Ang Pasko ay Sumapit” are fast, joyous songs that celebrate the coming of the Savior. “Ang Pagmamano” and “Mano Po Ninong” relive the value respect through the kissing of the hand. There are of course, songs that speak of loneliness and our yearning for the company of loved ones during the holidays. Modern songs like Gary Valenciano’s “Pasko na Sinta Ko” and Sharon Cuneta’s “Miss Kita Kung Christmas” express these. Not to be forgotten is Jose Mari Chan’s immensely popular, eight times platinum “Christmas in our Hearts,” which is considered to be the Philippines’ version of “White Christmas.” This song encompasses all the thoughts, emotions and traditions of the Filipino Christmas-gift-giving, exchanging holiday greetings, caroling, Christmas trees as well as praying for peace and prosperity.

We may never know how the original Christmas carols came about. But one thing is sure, those that we hear and sing now, and the many more that will be heard and sung in Christmases to come, will be part of our being Filipino. There will be more songs, definitely. All it takes, as La Verne Ducut says in his song:

Nagsimula ang lahat sa
Simpleng kuwentuhan
Bubuo ng awit
At sa padyak nakalikha ng tyempo
Sinabayan ng ritmong hindi pilit
Pasipol-sipol at sabay sa kumpas isa-isa
Nabuo na ang melodya
Kumpleto na ang kanta
Karoling, mga pang-Christmas na awitin
Sinulat para kayo’y aliwin
Pwede gamitin kung kayo’y
May karoling.

It all started
With a simple tale
Then came the tune
And the rhythm created from the beat
Along with it came the rhymes
Whistling to the beat of each
The melody is completed
Just as the song
Caroling, singing Christmas songs
Composed to make you happy
You can sing them when you’re caroling.     

Hazel Salariosa-Alviz

Hazel Salariosa-Alviz

Hazel Alviz is executive producer and host at DZAS Manila radio.
First published in
Filipinas Magazine, December 2004.