The strains of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer echo around a popular shopping mall in Quezon City, Manila. A band of mechanical snowmen, dressed in Santa hats, sway back and forth to the music, as shoppers – socially distanced – browse stacks of baubles and Christmas lights.
In the Philippines, a majority Catholic country, festive preparations are well and truly under way already. The country has one of the longest Christmas periods in the world, with celebrations beginning at the start of September and, for some, lasting as late as Valentine’s Day.
This year festivities will inevitably be different. On top of a ban on gatherings, and restrictions on church attendance, the economic impact of the coronavirus has left millions without work. The country has also faced three strong typhoons over recent weeks, including Vamco, which has killed at least 67 people as well as causing devastating flooding.
Some are torn over whether to put up their decor or “tone down” celebrations given the difficulties facing the country, according to Ambeth Ocampo, a historian and author.
For others the challenges of 2020 make it especially important to celebrate Christmas, even if the usual shopping sprees and parties are not possible. “We are still thankful because our family is complete. As long as we are together we’re OK,” said Nancy Endeno. “Our Christmas tree is up. I’m here to buy additional decorations,” she said, as she haggled with other shoppers at the side street stores selling parols – a traditional, and pricey, Philippine Christmas lantern.
Sato Laxa, who runs a shop on Granada street in Manila, sold 10 lanterns on Saturday afternoon. Sales are not as good as previous years but he is happy to be selling at all.
“We started getting buyers in September although we weren’t selling much. Sales have been very good lately,” Laxa said. Shoppers can pay anything from P3,000 (about £47/US$60) to P9,000 for the multi-coloured lanterns.
It is not clear why Christmas celebrations start so early in the Philippines, and it hasn’t always been this way, according to Ocampo. “Traditionally, Christmas started with the nine-day Misa de Gallo – literally Rooster Mass,” he said, referring to nine dawn masses leading to Christmas. “There is no cultural or religious reason for the long Christmas,” he said, but it may be a commercial ploy to encourage people to begin their shopping early.
Others say the extended festivities are unsurprising given Filipinos’ love of celebrations – there are 19 public holidays this year and a fiesta for each of its 146 cities and 1,488 municipalities.
The Christmas season traditionally ends on 6 January with the feast of Three Kings, “but some people extend beyond that to Chinese New year or even Valentine’s to keep the decor up and keep a festive mood”, said Ocampo.
Laxa is optimistic that people will still find a way to celebrate over the coming months. “Problems do not stop Filipinos from celebrating Christmas,” he said. “Be it a pandemic or typhoons, we manage to recover.”