Christmas in the Philippines: the Noche Buena Feast

Ham, queso de bola (Edam cheese) and hot chocolate are traditional

The Philippines holds the world record for having the longest Christmas season. When the first "ber" month begins (September is the first "ber" month), malls start playing Christmas carols and selling Christmas decor and gift items. It's always amusing to find Halloween costumes being sold side by side with Christmas trees but that's how it is. 

In groceries and supermarkets, traditional Christmas food start to make an appearance too. Ham and queso de bola (Edam cheese)...MORE start to fill the freezers and shelves. These two, along with hot chocolate made from the local tablea and pan de sal, are noche buena staples.

Noche buena? It's Spanish for "good night", literally, but in the Philippines, noche buena is steeped in cultural and religious significance. The country was a Spanish colony for more than three hundred years, after all, and the Catholic legacy runs deep. For Filipinos, noche buena is the night -- and the feast -- before Christmas day. More specifically, it is the meal eaten after hearing the midnight mass to welcome Christmas Day.

So, Filipino families feast on ham and cheese on midnight before Christmas? Let me be politically correct. The Philippines is a Third World country and more than ninety per cent of the population live below the poverty line. For many of these people, ham and cheese are luxuries that they cannot afford even once a year. When we hear and read about lavish noche buena spreads in the Philippines, they are found in the homes of middle class and upper class families. Depending on the economic status and financial capacity, the ham-cheese-pan de sal-chocolate meal might be supplemented by other dishes.

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    Paella
    Paella. Getty Images

    Rice is, to Filipinos, what bread is to Westerners. For important occasions, rice is served in a very special way. Paella, an iconic Spanish dish, has been adopted by the Filipinos with gusto. Saffron might not be a standard in Filipino cooking but we have our own ways of coloring and flavoring our paella.

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    Fruit salad

    What about sweets? Fruit salad is the number one choice. Filipinos have a peculiar way of serving fruit salad -- with drained canned fruit cocktail, cream and sweetened condensed milk.

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    Fruit cake

    Fruit cake
    Fruit cake. Burke/Triolo Productions/Getty Images

    And then, there's fruit cake. Families who count good bakers among its members have their own recipes; others simply buy. The quality of fruit cake in the Philippines ranges from the terrible to the terrifically good. Prices vary too.

Although my husband and I both grew up with all the trappings of Christmas, we have outgrown the need for lavish meals during the holidays. We have also swapped personal preference for tradition. We still prepare fruit salad, for instance, but with diced fresh fruit instead of canned fruit cocktail. Instead of a whole leg of ham which might prettify the dinner table but which takes us three months to consume, we buy assorted cold meat instead. And in lieu of queso de bola which I never liked all my life, we opt for several varieties of cheese in smaller amounts.