Christmas In Manila

Courtesy Pinoy Kollektor

Courtesy Pinoy Kollektor

Maligayang Pasko !

It’s a salutation that millions of Filipinos use this time of year. Merry Christmas !

The Christmas season brings special nostalgic memories for me as I’m sure it does for everyone but what particularly stands out in my memories are things from my childhood days when my family and I lived in the Malate area. We lived on Remedios Street a few blocks away from the church, which in itself was the center of many Christmas activities.



No stockings and no chimney but parols were hung outside our windows “with care”. Mom would get us our Christmas tree – usually a short tree stripped bare of all its leaves and painted white, then decorated with tinsel, and that white cottony-like stuff that was supposed to look like snow, Christmas balls and ornaments, and of course, the famous bubble lights ! Ah – a thing of beauty ! To top it off, there was that fake snow-in-a-can that we would spray on the windows. Odd – because after all , this is Manila, it was 86 degrees, and on top of that, I had never even seen real snow.

Courtesy of Lito Ligon

Courtesy of Lito Ligon – photo taken at his mother’s home in Ermita in the Fifties.

Filipinos love Christmas and are known for celebrating the world’s longest Christmas season which usually starts in September and ends on January 6th (Three Kings Day).  It’s a season chockfull of department store displays, holiday carols on the radio, special masses, decorations galore, many parties, glad tidings and cheer all around. Everyone is in a good mood and share a sense of optimism in which Filipinos abound.

The photo below is from my American School yearbook showing our Christmas Formal 1961.

After graduating from the American School in 1962, my mother and I went to live permanently in Seattle with my new stepdad, Vern. It was a huge change of life for me after all, born and living in Manila in my formative years. After being gone for 42 years, I returned home to Manila in 2004 with my wife, Michelle, to film scenes for our documentary, “Victims of Circumstance” that dealt with the Japanese internment camp at the University of Santo Tomas. I found much had changed since 1962. Many of the street names were changed, quite a few landmarks and buildings were replaced, and…the traffic had increased to a frustrating level but that Christmas spirit was still there – intact and inviting as ever.

When we arrived in Manila in mid-November and I was anxious to see UST and start filming. It was crucial to give the viewers an idea of the large campus site and the interior classrooms where about 4000 Allied families where kept during the Japanese occupation. It is a rather somber film because of its subject nature. We had obtained the proper authorization and had to reserve certain times to film as classes were still continuing. When we got there, I was surprised – no, astounded – that the buildings and campus where all decorated merrily with Christmas decorations ! I was so involved in production that I had completely forgotten that Christmas had already started. As they say online, OMG !  There was no way I could present this in the documentary. Well, we did some interior shots and decided we had to come back to Manila after the Christmas season – which we did the following February.

But, back to the Holiday season in the Philippines…

Our country has the largest Catholic population in Asia from over 400 years as a Spanish colony and is marked by legends, customs, symbols, merry-making and of course, food.

Binondo Church c.1900

Binondo Church c.1900

We have the largest number of Catholic churches in Asia to attend to the faithful. Special masses are held. Filipinos begin a novena, a series of nine masses, in mid-December. The masses are part of a cherished religious tradition called Simbang Gabi or “Night Worship”. Traditionally, the faithful go to church at four o’clock in the morning and later have breakfast together. The Noche Buena is a feast enjoyed after the Midnight Mass. It’s a time for families to reunite, give thanks and blessings and enjoy special family dishes. Quite often, an aguinaldo or gift of money is given to the children by godparents.


The Simbang Gabi or Misa de Gallo originated in the early days of Spanish rule as a practical compromise for farmers who started their day before sunrise to avoid the heat in the fields. This custom eventually became a distinct feature of Philippine culture and is a symbol of sharing. During the Spanish and early American periods the parishioners would mostly have nothing to offer at the Mass except sacks of rice, fruits and vegetables and fresh eggs that were graciously accepted by the priests who kept a portion for themselves and share with the rest of the parishioners after the service.

 These days, traditional local delicacies are the iconic puto bumbong, bibingka, suman and other rice pastries which often are cooked on the spot. Latik and yema are sweets sold to children, while biscuits like uraro, barquillos, lengua de gato and otap are also favorites. Kape Barako, a very strong coffee grown in the province of  Batangas, hot tsokolate, or salabat, a ginger tea are the main drinks. Arroz Caldo (rice and chicken porridge), and other soups popular.

Bibingka is considered as one of the must have desserts on most Christmas tables.  It’s made of galapong (rice dough) and fresh eggs traditionally cooked with a small charcoal stove.  Typically topped with salted eggs and white cheese, lathered with melted butter and drizzled with sugar.  It is often paired with grated coconut.  Another Filipino favorite is the Puto Bumbong made out of glutenous rice, steamed, lathered with melted butter, topped with Muscovado sugar, served with freshly grated coconut. Yumm !

Suman is a rice cake made from glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk, and often steamed wrapped in buli or buri palm leaves. It is usually eaten sprinkled with sugar. Suman wrapping is a unique art in itself, and can be traced to pre-colonial roots which have had contact with Indian traditions. Wrappers utilize a wide variety of indigenous materials such as palm, banana, anahaw and bamboo leaves, coconut shells, and others.

Suman and mango

TsokolateOne of the world’s most flavorful hot chocolate drinks is made in the Philippines. Tsokolate is made from chocolate discs, or tablets, known as Tablea, made from pure cacao nibs that are roasted, ground, and then mixed with a bit of sugar. And depending on the region of the Philippines, some ground peanuts may also be added. To make Filipino Tsokolate, a tablea or two is dissolved in some hot water and then mixed and frothed with a wooden whisk called a Batidor.

I used to love to go to the Taza de Oro on Padre Faura for my merienda of hot chocolate and pan de sal. Oh my, those were the days.

Light and delicate, leche flan has always been my favorite. Loaded with cholesterol from all the eggs but truly a delight ! Mom would bake it in a one pound coffee can sitting in water – cooled, then inverted so the caramel sauce flowed over the top and sides. Maybe that’s why I was kind of chubby back then… ?

I almost forgot to mention another favorite dessert called champorado, a kind of chocolate rice pudding eaten in the Philippines. This is not to be confused with the Mexican champurrado, which is more of a hot chocolate drink.

Manila is a city not only of churches but also restaurants offering a huge selection of choices for the holidays. Since my folks owned the jewelry store “Gem Gift Shop” on the Escolta, they usually worked all the time so big family dinners at home were not our tradition. A special evening would be to go to the Sky Room at the Jai Alai or a steak dinner at the New Europe or the Swiss Inn, Spanish dishes at Guernica’s or Casa Marcos and family fare at the Aristocrat or Max’s Fried Chicken.

One of my Nostalgia contributors, Angelina Frey, recalls her family’s dinners, “…we had the morcon (like beef rouladen – which is flank steak rolled with stuffings inside like ground beef, carrots, dill pickles & chorizo Bilbao. At times we had Paella or Valenciana, and Callos (tripe), plus fruit cakes and Filipino rice cakes (remember the sticky rice?) And not to forget many dinner tables had Jamon en Dulce ... a very huge, salty bone-in leg of ham known as Jamon Serrano.  Mama would soak it in a huge soup pot with gallons of canned pineapple juice to remove some of the salt, then glaze it with brown sugar and bake it, garnished with some pineapple slices and marascino cherries to brighten it up.  We ate thin slices of this salty stuff with pan-de-sal.”

Another reader, Horatio Torres, writes, “Our family would almost always patronize Toho or San Jacinto on Tomas Pinpin Street or else just buy the famous Ramon Lee Fried Chicken in front of Sta. Cruz Church.  During Thanksgiving Day, La Perla Restaurant would offer Turkey dinners at a reasonable price located on the side street where Good Earth was on Rizal Avenue.  Their Pancit Lomi was to die for!”

The Filipino culture is rich in tradition, especially during the Christmas season. And nothing says Christmas in the Philippines like seeing parols – taken from the Spanish word “farol” meaning lantern. These gaily star-shaped lanterns are ubiquitous throughout the city, in homes and shops everywhere.

Parol making-Las Piñas

In my day, they were made with thin bamboo slivers covered with colored tissue paper and lit by a candle or light bulb. They have since evolved into quite fancy decorations, some employing capiz shells and even digital lights programmed to flash and dance a dizzying array of colors.

The Nativity scene is called a Belen, a tableau depicting the night Jesus was born in the manger surrounded by the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, shepherds and three Magi.



In another quaint and fun tradition, Cumbancheros or carolers, are usually children in small groups that go from house to house singing Christmas carols, which they call pangangaroling. Makeshift instruments include tambourines made with tansans (aluminum bottle caps) strung on a piece of wire. With the traditional chant of “Namamasko po!“, these carolers wait expectantly for the homeowners to reward them with coins. Afterward, the carolers thank the generous homeowners by singing “Thank you, thank you, ang babait ninyo (you are so kind), thank you!” Courtesy of

I think I would be safe to say that Manileños love to shop. That’s been going on since the beginning of the American period through today. Before the war, the most popular stores were on the Escolta, down Rizal Avenue, Carriedo and Azcarraga – considered “downtown”; stores like Estrella del Norte, Philippine Education Company, Heacock’s, Botica Boie, and Aguinaldo’s.

Xmas sign Heacock Xmas Ad Heacock1

Interior of Heacock's-1941

Christmas season at Heacock’s-1941

Back in the day, I don’t recall seeing any department store Santa Clauses as they do today, with the retinue of little elf helpers and a line of children waiting to get their pictures taken with the Great One and hopefully bend his ear to ask for a favorite doll or toy. One eventful Christmas, I asked Santa, via a letter my mom helped me write, for a two wheeled bicycle – helping me graduate from a three-wheeler.  I pointed to an ad in the paper from Kairuz.

And, not to forget my favorite store on the Escolta (besides our own Gem Gift Shop), was Berg’s Department Store. These photos generously submitted by Ms.Evelyn Berg Empie.

Bergs-This Week-Xmas-logo










Two weeks after the manic rush of Christmas was a smaller yet quaint holiday. I was told to shine my shoes to a high polish and place them on the windowsill, the idea was to attract the attention of the Three Kings as they returned from the manger. Thus highly impressed with the polish on my shoes, they would place candies and small toys in my shoes. This system seemed to work so I never doubted how three Magi could possibly travel from the manger (wherever that was) on their camels all the way to Manila. At that point, I had never seen a camel anyway.

The Caltex bldg. was at the corner of P. Faura and Dakota (M. Adriatico St.)

Just before the war, it was the fashion to hold charity balls at the Manila Hotel and as a result it promoted a sense of competition for the most spectacular production of these lavish affairs. Wartime hero Commander “Chick” Parsons’ wife, Katrushka, recalled master-minding a “Snow Ball” for the Anti-Tuberculosis Society. An actual sleigh was imported with real sleigh bells, and Filipina beauties all gowned in shimmering white were drawn around the Fiesta Pavilion pelting guests with white cotton “snowballs” to the tune of “Winter Wonderland”. The Manila Hotel, Beth Day Romulo

Dining Room at the Manila Hotel – December 1941

Because Manila is at sea level, there were no basement level areas where one could find shelter. The Manila Hotel was one of a few that prepared for the inevitable. Other hotels, such as the Bay View protected their lobbies with sandbags. The photo below was taken by Clif Forster in December, 1941. Clif was about 18 when Manila was being bombed by the Japanese even after the declaration of the “Open City”.

The photo above was taken on December 1st, 1941 at the Santa Ana Cabaret owned by John Canson. The dance hall was decorated with Christmas lights and large parols. Many military men were enjoying their liberty , not knowing that Manila would be attacked by the Japanese just a week later.

On the evening of Dec 7, 1941 a loud party was underway at the Manila Hotel’s Fiesta Pavilion. Maj.Gen. Lewis Brereton, a commander of the USAAFE was attending a party thrown by the 27th Bomb Group recently arrived from the U.S. ahead of their planes. The party was marked by raucous laughter, off-key singing, tinkling glass and squealing girls and ran on into the wee hours of the morning. Observing from the Hotel’s Bamboo Bar under a cascade of bougainvillea, !st Lt. Dwight Hunkins remarked to his friends, “I hope they can fly B-17s better than they can sing.” None of them knew it yet but they would be at war the next morning and when it was over only one of them would still be alive.

On Christmas Eve, at President Quezon’s urging, Gen. Douglas MacArthur declared Manila an open city. An affront to the predominately Catholic population, Manila was bombed twice on Christmas Day with the bombings continuing for several days.

The Filipino people observed Christmas that year under black-out conditions: the enemy was no respecter of open cities and the advent of Christmas did not interrupt his bombing schedules. On Christmas eve we felt as though the lights of freedom, of decency, of justice and peace, of everything we valued and cherished, were going out all over the world. This thought came to soldiers in their unlighted trenches, to the refugees huddled along the dark roads and open fields, to the women and children in their black-out homes.” Carlos P. Romulo’s Christmas message, 1949, which he wrote while serving as president of the UN General Assembly:

Within the Santo Tomas Internment Camp, the internees were experiencing their fourth Christmas at war. Presents were limited to drawings done on scraps of paper,  poems copied and put together in a notebook sewn together with thread. We sang the familiar carols as we had before and hoped, as we had before, that the next Christmas would find us free. From an internee’s diary: “December 25, 1944 American planes fly over and drop leaflets… Later we went over to watch the children having a party. Each child was given a piece of coconut candy made with brown sugar. There was great rejoicing over this treat.” Happy Life Blues: A Memoir of Survival, Cecily Mattocks Marshall

The Japanese occupation dampened the usually highly spirited Christmas seasons from 1942 thru 1944 as food and supplies dwindled down to nothing. On December 24, 1944 the people of the Philippines received a surprise when airplanes of 43rd Bombing Group flew over to drop a million Christmas cards; each one contains the words: “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year 1944.”

On February 3rd, 1945 the internees received the present Christmas present yet. Several Navy planes flew low over the camp. One of the pilots dropped a pair of flyer’s goggles into one of the patios of the Main Building containing the message: “Roll out the barrel, Christmas is coming. We’ll be with you Sunday or Monday !” Happy Life Blues, Cecily Mattocks Marshall

This year, Typhoon Yolanda destroyed many communities in the Visayas region. The destruction and loss of life and possessions is daunting to say the least, but more than that, the aftermath of the storm threatened to wreck the spirit of the survivors. Yet I know that the strength of the Filipinos will overcome these tragedies because of their generosity , their helpfulness and bayanihan. This article is dedicated to those survivors. I encourage you to donate to your favorite charity – your help is still needed !


It’s been a great year for me personally. I have had such wonderful fun writing articles for Manila Nostalgia and even more importantly, hearing from all of you. Besides this blog, I also have a Facebook site called “Manila Nostalgia” that you might find interesting. The members post photos and recall stories of the Manila they love. 

Maligayang Pasko sa lahat at Masaganang Bagong Taon !
A very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all !

Lou, Michelle, and Santa

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27 Responses to Christmas In Manila

  1. Doreen Wiley says:

    Lou, your Philippine Christmas memorabilia is outstanding! Thanks for the sentimental journey.
    Feliz Navidad and the best in the new year to you both

  2. Jose Lontok says:

    Another food on the table during Christmas is the Queso de Bola 😉

  3. Noelle Ayres Banser says:

    Absolutely outstanding article, combing the wonderful Christmas traditions with the harsh realities of Christmas during the war years! You did an outstanding job. Christmas has never seemed quite “right” to me without a parol hanging outside the front door. What I wouldn’t give to have one now. I never thought of it then, but surely they were a fire hazard?? That thin, thin tissue paper and the hot electric light bulb? I don’t remember Christmas starting in September though! To this day I’m always a bit put out when they start Christmas carols and decorations before The 1st of December!
    Maligayang Pasko to you and Michelle,

  4. Wm Marvin Rose says:

    Excellent work Lou! Refreshed my memories again!

  5. Ricky Catalá says:


    Your are doing a wonderful job. I cannot thank you enough for all the memories you bring back and continue to bring back as I revisit your posts.

    All the best to you and your family,


  6. Judith henry says:

    I’m dreaming of a Green Christmas
    Just like the ones I used to know.
    With Calesa Bells ringing
    and little boys singing for ten centavos
    and no snow.
    I’m dreaming of a Green Christmas
    with every Christmas Card I’ve seen.
    May your days be gay and serene,
    And may all your Christmases be Green

    written with a homesick heart in Vermont in 1958…My first christmas in years away from Manila.

  7. N. Pascasio says:

    Thanks again for what is both a wonderful article and a meaningful Christmas meditation!

    Merry Christmas to you and Michelle! And also to all fans and followers of Manila Nostalgia!

  8. John Del Gallego says:

    Lou, if you have finished your film, I will be interested in getting a copy. Let me know the cost and how I can pay for it.

    I am also doing a research on the Liberation of Manila, for a possible book.


  9. maria divina recinto carpena says:

    i used to watch old movies when i was still a child and it made me wonder how the world back then. its a refreshing for me to feel it and wished that my time would be the same how it was :).. it also made me realized that i have to be thankful that i didnt experienced that kind of war. 1942-1944, in between that years, my mom was born. how did my grandparents survived then? made me count that my mom had me at the age of 17 as her first born, very young mother… thank you, lou for taking me back at that time and will surely love to go back again.. its like a time machine.. parang ang saya at tahimik noon had not been for the war..

  10. Antonio Espina says:

    Enjoyed reading and reminished the old tradition of celebrating Christmas in the Philippines. Thanks Lou

  11. ramon zaldarriaga says:


    Another excellent rendition of times past. Who says time travel is not possible…You have done it again. Thank you so much for bringing back vivid memories of our happier times.

  12. CRISANTO says:


    I’m just curious, do you still speak tagalog fluently?

  13. lougopal says:

    No, not really. I’ve lost a lot since moving to Seattle in 1962. Every time I go back to Manila some of it comes back. Mahina nalang.

  14. Corazon Lopez Guila- Lutz says:

    Hi, enjoyed reading !! ….now homesick !!!
    Am a Theresian….STCM-HS’65

  15. Corazon Lopez Guila- Lutz says:

    Thanking you and God bless !
    Sincerely, Cora

  16. Jay says:

    Wonderful blog.. Lou you’re the man… keep them coming!!

  17. Edwin Wang, Queens, NY says:

    Hi Lou, you should be proclaimed a national hero for creating these websites. I was very gratified (if that’s the word) to have discovered this that immediately email your website to friends who I know grew up in the Manila area. One question, you didn’t mentioned the name of your band when you played with RJ & The Riots. I still have to browse through all your sites but currently at work. Again, BRAVO, for doing this & sharing this happy nostalgic moments with us who are away from the country. Thanks.

  18. lougopal says:

    Many thanks for your kind comment Edwin. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name we had for that band. There’s still another surviving member, Rick Catala. I’ll have to ask if he remembers. Cheers, Lou

  19. J. Ortega says:

    Hi Lou,

    I was wondering how you could write from the spirit of one who is fellow countryman. Your narrative of the whole Christmas holiday I believe is one based on your own local experience because your perfect timed inserts of local jargon strongly identifies you as one of us. This is the hallmark of your credibility as a writer. Your pictures lay credence to the stories but your literary style keeps me more riveted to finish the whole article. In the open media world of overflowing hacks, I find your blog inspiring, thought provoking and would recommend it to somebody who is serious about Philippine History. Mabuhay ka Lou.

  20. Emilio J. Villanueva says:

    I’m from Baguio but went to Manila for my education. My wife is also a Henry (Jean C. Henry) daughter of the late Raymond Henry of Philex Mines Too many Henry’s around. In San Bruno,CA there is also Uncle Joseph Henry. I’ m sure he’ll appreciate this Nostalgia. I for one, these pictures are so vivid in my memory. Salamat sa iyo Lou. Much appreciation.


  21. Roy Gutierrez says:

    Hi Lou,
    Thanks again for the memories. I use to hang out in Escolta when I was young and what I enjoyed the most was walking through Escolta, Avenida Rizal, Dasmarinas, etc. looking at all the sidewalk vendors and the Christmas toys and gifts they were selling. It really brought out the commercial spirit of Christmas if you can call it that.

  22. prices says:

    I really like to read about Christmas traditions from different corners of our world, because there are many unusual nuances.

  23. Wilfred Yu says:

    You wrote about other business establishments in Escolta,
    why not about your father’s Gem store?

  24. With your permission, I would like to share this article in the facebook page of Philippine Expressions Bookshop. Interesting article and am sure that a lot of people will enjoy it. Please confirm. Thanks, Gopal.

  25. lougopal says:

    Yes, you may share my article and thank you !

  26. lougopal says:

    I believe I did. Read my article about “A Sindhi in Manila”

  27. Sal Estrada says:

    I enjoy reading your story every Christmas. Merry Christmas Lou and Michelle!

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