Christmas Travel in the Philippines

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Christmas at Taal Volcano 5281840864 l 249x167 Christmas Travel in the Philippines

While participating in the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Medical Blog Contest last November, I met Claire and Ivan, two travel bloggers from the Philippines. “You should really come to the Philippines after the competition finishes,” Claire urged, upon hearing I hadn’t yet visited her country. “Christmas in the Philippines is the best time to visit.”

I’d always wanted to visit the Philippines, so I didn’t waste time booking a cheap flight from Bangkok to Manila. Just as Claire had told me it would, spending Christmas in the Philippines proved to be a wise decision — and not just because of the tropical warmth.

Catholicism in the Philippines

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Christmas at Taal Volcano near Manila.

The obvious reason Christmas in the Philippines is such a huge celebration is the fact that the country is so predominately Catholic. With nearly 74 million adherents as of 2005, the Philippines is home to the third largest contingent of Catholics in the world, after Brazil and Mexico.

Indeed, while Christmas is “celebrated” throughout Asia in the material sense — namely trees, people dressed in Santa costumes and ceremonial gift-giving — Filipinos are among the only nations in the region (the other being East Timor) that literally put the christ in Christmas.

Of course, Catholic churches and other architecture are so widespread and flamboyant in the Philippines that it’s difficult to say whether the coming of Christmas makes much of a difference in outward religious expressions. It’s hard to imagine the Manila Cathedral or San Agustín Monastery, for example, being much grander than they usually are.

Malls in the Philippines

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Nativity scenes are only the beginning of Christmas in the Philippines.

The Philippines’ being so solidly Catholic does little to diminish the country’s more material expressions of Christmas cheer. Indeed, stepping foot into any of the literally hundreds of shopping malls that dot the country exposes you to chaos, festive and good-natured as it is, unlike any you’ve ever seen.

After I landed at Manila International Airport, Ivan dropped me off at SM Makati Mall in central Manila, a huge shopping center made all the more massive by virtue of being connected to the neighboring Greenbelt and Glorietta malls. I was apprehensive when he dropped me off that I’d be able to occupy five hours of my time at a mall, but had barely crossed from SM into the Greenbelt by the time I was to meet him where he’d dropped me off.

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Christmas trees seems somehow out of place in the balmy heat.

Malls in the Philippines during Christmas are decked out in the same kinds of Christmas trees, oversized ornaments and red-and-green trimmed store signs and advertisements you’d find in the United States or Europe. Two key factors make the Philippine Christmas shopping experience more memorable: The size of the malls and the number of people crammed into them.

By a stroke of luck, I ran into Claire (who was manning a booth on behalf of Habitat for Humanity, where she works full-time when she isn’t maintaining her blog “First-Time Travels”) on the ground floor of the SM Mall. When I asked her, perhaps ignorantly, how so many people in the developing Philippines could afford to shop at malls, she let me in on a secret.

“A lot of people don’t come here to shop,” she said, pointing up to the air duct on the ceiling. “For some, malls are just a place to come and enjoy free air conditioning.”

Philippine Weather in December

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My view on Christmas morning in Boracay

And believe me, you’ll need the air conditioning, even if you come to the Philippines during Christmas.

With the exception of the mountainous north, where the exquisite Banaue Rice Terraces are located, the Philippines is hot all year-round. In Manila, for example, the average high temperature in December is a balmy 30°C, or about 87°F.

Precipitation-wise, the country (again, with the exception of Ifugao and other mountainous provinces in northern Luzon) is on the drier side in December. This is because December falls within the “Amihan” seasonal weather pattern, which is the driest of the two patterns the Philippines experiences, the other being the “Habagat” or monsoon.

Regardless of slight regional variations, the Philippines is one of the best places in the world to experience a snow- and cold-free Christmas.

Regional Christmas Observance in the Philippines

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Blow-up Christmas decorations on the beach in Boracay.

I was lucky enough to spend Christmas day on the tropical island of Boracay, located about an hour’s flight south of Manila. Like the capital, Boracay’s December weather is characterized by balmy temperatures and clear skies.

Due to both a deficiency of churches and an overabundance of tourists, Christmas on Boracay tends to be characterized more by hotel and restaurant brunches than sacred masses as it would elsewhere in the Philippines. Still, a sense of festivity is nonetheless present, with Christmas Santa sculptures, blow-up ornaments and palm trees decked out in Christmas lights.

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The “Giant Lantern Festival” in Pampanga takes place just a few days before Christmas.

Other regions of the Philippines were likewise festive. When I arrived at Taal Volcano, located in Batangas province about about 100 km from Manila, my envoy was greeted by children dressed in Santa costumes are our boat docked on the volcano’s shore. Meanwhile up in Ifugao province near the rice terraces, signs of Christmas were much less conspicuous, perhaps owing to that region’s preservation of its own indigenous religion. In Pampanga province, located just north of Manila, the annual “Giant Lantern Festival”takes place close to Christmas.

When I departed Manila, I felt extremely happy that I’d chosen to spend Christmas in the Philippines. Whether you’re Catholic and want to attend Christmas mass in Manila or simply want to escape the snow and cold and relax on the beaches of Boracay or Palawan, I highly recommend you spend Christmas in the Philippines.

Robert Schrader
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who's been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as "CNNGo" and "Shanghaiist" along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.
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