Saturday, December 31, 2011

The New Year, the Food, and the Tradition

The New Year celebration in the Philippines is the one of the loudest in the world. Christmas in the Philippine islands is undoubtedly the longest but Christmas Eve is under-celebrated—which is surprising since the country is predominantly Roman Catholic. The New Year celebration is a very big deal in the Philippines. It is more colorful and flashier than Christmas. It is noisier than Christmas.

Back when I was a kid, I used to ask my folks why the hikay for the Noche Buena is lesser than the hikay for Media Noche. They told me that it has always been that way, that the celebrations for the Bag-ong Tuig are much bigger. I used to tell them that they should be giving more emphasis on Christmas—I was still religious at that time—now, I don’t know what I’ve become—I still do believe that the Christmas celebration should be more prominent than the New Year’s Day fanfare.

What are the events on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day? What traditions do we observe?

This bird that once soared high in the heavens seemed satisfied to live the barnyard life of the lowly hen

The New Year’s Eve is a very busy day. The malls and groceries are crowded. The jeepneys are crowded—almost everyone is off to the grocer’s.  

Yesterday, my mother, who was about to leave for the shops, asked me what I wanted to eat for Media Noche. I told her to cook spaghetti but she insisted that we cook bam-i since we already had penne on Christmas. Noodles are always served on New Year’s Eve. Eating noodles on New Year’s Day or on one’s birthday brings long life, a belief which we got from the Chinese.

When I told her to cook fried chicken since I’ve been eating pork since Christmas, she reminded me that we can not have fried chicken on the first day of the year. We don’t serve chicken since chickens have what Cebuanos call the kakha, tuka (scratch and peck) habit—figuratively, it means living from hand to mouth. Cebuanos fear serving chicken, which scratches and pecks, would have the family barely making ends meet on the coming year. I don’t know if this belief applies to the whole country. I am still to see a chicken served on the table on Media Noche.

I wasn’t really able to choose a dish since my mama seems to have an objection to my choices. My mother was better off not asking for my opinion. She left for the grocer’s and I didn’t get to pick a dish.

Jump up and you’ll shoot up, pull your ilong and it’ll be long

The start of the year is also a time that we invest on our health. No, it is not about health insurances. Rather, it is about feeling well and healthy on January 1st.  There is a belief that if you get sick on New Year’s Day, you’ll be sickly the whole year.

Jumping up on New Year’s Eve is believed to increase one’s physical height. I’ve been jumping at midnight every January 1 but it never increased my height. What did I expect? It’s a superstition. It’s silly but I used to believe it—I was hoping to grow taller to at least 6’0. The jumping tradition is still very much alive today.

There is also a belief that pressing and stretching one’s nose on New Year’s Eve would make your nose longer. Who doesn’t want a long, narrow, and pointed nose?

Small circle, small circle, big circle...

New Year’s Day in the Philippines is a time of circles and spheres. Circles resemble coins. Coins are money. Well, the circles and the spheres are not about the accumulation of wealth—they’re about prosperity.

(clockwise) watermelon, ponkans, cantaloupe, sapodillas,
purple mangosteens, yellow pomegranate and Asian pears.
On New Year’s Day, people used to wear polka dots. They say that the circles bring good fortune to the wearer. I don’t know if this tradition is still alive today. I haven’t seen people wear polka dots on December 31 and January 1. I believe polka dots are passé.

On the same day, still for prosperity's sake, the tables are laden with round-shaped fruits—usually thirteen—but may also include ovals and oblongs and multiple varieties of oranges, apples, and other fruits. Why 13? They say that the number 13 is lucky to the Chinese people. Round cakes, jamon de bola, queso de bola, chocolate coins, and other circular or round-shaped food are also served.

And then we made some noise

At the stroke of midnight, people make loud noises. Some shake their coin-filled pockets. Others bang their pots and pans. Kids blow their torotot—a horn made of plastic or cardboard.  Volumes are pumped up. Everyone else ignite their fireworks and firecrackers.

The noise from the firecrackers and fireworks are believed to drive away the malevolent spirits and bad luck—another belief that we got from the Chinese.  For the same purpose, we max out the volume, shake our pockets and bang our pans and pots. At the same time, shaking the pockets, a tradition that I still do, and banging the pots and pans are believed to fill the pockets and tables.

Well, some people are so fond of bad luck they run half way to meet it and end up losing a finger or more.

A new day, a new year

On January 1st, people would remind you to refrain from spending. It is believed that if you’re frugal at the start of the year, you will be able to avoid unnecessary expenses in the whole year.

Lastly, still on January 1st, some, if not most, people would go to church—some of them would wake up very early to hear Mass even though most of them stayed up the whole night the previous night. Some of my friends got dragged to church even when they’re still very sleepy. I’ve experienced going to church in the middle of sleep and wakefulness but on the day of the Sinulog not on New Year’s Day. When I asked my folks why people go to church on New Year’s Day, they told me that it was the tradition—no further explanation.

In school, I learned that first day of the year is a Holy Day of Obligation—I survived Catholic school. We were taught that the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass on Sundays and on other holy days of obligation. What I did not learn—which I learned later outside of school—is that the first day of the year is the Feast of the Circumcision. I remember asking my self why we were obliged to go hear Mass on January 1—I don’t remember any of my teachers explain the reason why—it may have slipped their minds or I failed to listen to the discussion.

There is a work around to hearing Mass on January 1st. It’s not really a work around, but it was one of outcomes of the Second Vatican Council. One can go to church the evening of December 31. Since the Second Vatican Council, the time for fulfilling the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday or a Holy Day of Obligation now begins on the evening of the day before, and most parish churches do celebrate the Sunday Mass also on Saturday evening. Eek, I’m talking religion now.

The Philippines literally celebrate the New Year with a bang. It is made colourful, noisier and flashier by the traditions—both religious and superstitious—observed on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

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