The Holy Child Was Born, Now Let’s Eat

Noche Buena (Source:

Noche Buena (Source:

In the Philippine Catholic tradition, it is the Noche Buena, the Good Night, or the Media Noche, the midnight mass followed by the midnight meal that is the most important event.

Thus to me, the Biblical day began with the Eve. The Bible gives us the true indication that the first day of Creation began on the Eve (See Genesis 1, 3.) God created light and darkness, and the scriptures say, “And there was evening, and there was morning, the first day.” The Bible goes on about God’s creation for every single day until the seventh day, the Sabbath. As each day is done, the Bible proclaims, “And there was evening and the morning, the second, third, etc. to the seventh day.”

In Southeast Asia, the Philippines is one of only two Christian countries (the other is East Timor). Hence, Christmas is a national celebration, and the Christmas Eve table is a communal feast in every home.

The influence of the Catholic Church is evident in the names of Masses that are celebrated in the Philippines: the Misa de Gallo, or Simbang Gabi and the Misa de Aguinaldo or the Mass of Gifts.

Christmas festivities begin on the 16th of December with dawn Masses commemorated nine days in anticipation of Christmas Eve.

Misa de Gallo or Rooster’s Mass. Why roosters? No, it has nothing to do with Saint Peter and the rooster. It has all to do with farmers rising up when the rooster crows at dawn in order to go to church and attend Mass, before trudging on to the rice fields to work.

The Misa de Aguinaldo. Why Aguinaldo? It has nothing to do with Emilio Aguinaldo, the Philippine revolutionary general and president of the first Philippine Republic. It has something to do with small envelopes containing money given as Christmas gifts. Aguinaldo is a Spanish term for a monetary gift. After Mass, the children kiss the hands of elders and their godfathers and grandmothers; in return they get their aguinaldos.

The church is the center of Christmas activities. There are traditional Philippine paper lanterns in the shape of the Star of Bethlehem. In addition, wooden figurines of the Holy Family, shepherds, angels and a manger are on display in the church. In some houses, miniature Christmas nativity scenes are among the Christmas decorations.

In my ancestral home, the communal Christmas Eve (Noche Buena) table is a veritable still-life oil canvas.

In Calapan

Now, allow me to take you to my little provincial town of Calapan, Oriental Mindoro, where the colonial Christmas tradition has not yet been influenced by modern, urban Manila.

We attend the Christmas Eve Mass called Misa de Aguinaldo. The choir rings out with a lively Villancico number (Spanish songs with tambourine accompaniment). That signals a mad rush outside to the food stalls for the offerings of rice cakes (bibingka and puto bumbong [purple rice with butter and steamed in a bamboo tube]), washed down with ginger tea or salabat.

In my ancestral home, the communal Christmas Eve (Noche Buena) table is a veritable still-life oil canvas. The thing that stands out in my mind is that shiny red waxy round orb in the form of Edam cheese we call queso de bola.

The centerpiece is the jamon, the glorious whole leg of ham glazed with anise, brown sugar and walnuts.

Suman (Source:

Suman (Source:

No lowly pan de sal at Noche Buena. The American special food contributions were a large bread loaf called pan Americano and a basket spilling over with imported apples and grapes.

There is always pancit (noodles) for long life considerations. My friend, Irwin, remembers the soupy pancit sotanghon (mung bean noodles) at their family Christmas Eve table. He recalls, “I would scoop off all the fried garlic and chopped scallions on to my soup bowl.”

The dessert I most dream of with great anticipation was the gelatinous rice cake with multicolored layers called sapin-sapin. In Tagalog it means “layered.”

Suman (tube rice cakes) of various kinds included suman sa lihiya wrapped in banana leaves and suman sa ibos wrapped in coconut sheaves, laid out with the accompanying fried coconut flakes or latik

Tsokolate-eh (Source:

Tsokolate-eh (Source:

I remember we had a choice of tsokolate. My family farm has several cacao trees, and I know what a real cacao fruit looks like and how the seeds are dried and prepared as a rich drink fit for the Aztec ruler Montezuma. Miguel Lopez de Legazpi introduced this fruit to the Philippines from Mexico in 1575.

On our dinner table on Christmas Eve, there were tsokolate-eh and tsokolate-ah. The first one is a dark, strong and rich chocolate brew topped with froth: “eh” for leche (milk). There is a special kitchen wooden beater called batidor that makes this frothy cream topping. Tsokolate-ah was diluted with water. “Ah” for agua.

After feasting in the midnight hour, we woke up to Christmas morning satiated and happy.

Penelope V. Flores

Penelope V. Flores

Dr. Penélope V. Flores is a Professor Emerita from San Francisco State University. 

More articles by Dr. Penelope V. Flores:

José Rizal And His Dueling German Friends
December 19, 2012
Penélope V. Flores shares that, in Heidelberg, Rizal fell in with fencing “student princes.”

Rizal’s Great Loves
June 19, 2013
Did Jose Rizal have only three loves instead of nine?

Andres Bonifacio, The Other National Hero
November 29, 2013
Why some people think the Leader of the Revolution got the short end of the stick.

Circumcision: Writhe Of Passage
April 24, 2014
A rite of passage that generations of Filipino men had to endure

Rizal's "Kiss"
June 27, 2014
So, who really wrote this satire on the difficulty of kissing a Filipino woman – Rizal or Antonio Luna?

Gemelli Carreri, An Italian In Manila, 1696
November 19, 2014
A 17th century traveler visits Manila and records his observations in a bestseller.