The story of Christmas around the world > 9

Most homes display a parol outside their windows (usually a star-shaped lantern signifying the Star of Bethlehem that can be made simply from bamboo sticks and colourful cellophane or the more elaborate capiz shells).

The daily pre-dawn mass (Simbang Gabi) begins December 16 and ends with a midnight mass (Misa de Gallo) on Christmas Eve. Early risers are rewarded at the end of the church service with the joyful sight of festive food stalls in the church yard that sell native delicacies.

Most churches stage the Panunuluyan, a dramatization of the Holy Family’s journey to Bethlehem, on Christmas Eve. After midnight mass on Christmas Eve, families gather for the Noche Buena (midnight feast) and the opening of gifts. There is a great divide between the Noche Buena of the rich and the poor in this predominantly Roman Catholic country in Southeast Asia.

While the rich can feast on as many as 20 dishes, including ham, lechon (whole roast pig), stuffed chicken, tiger prawns, imported fruits and chocolates, the poor often have to rely on the kindness of neighbours. Most, strive, however, to save for what is considered the most important feast of the year and commonly serve pancit (noodles), embotido (stuffed ground pork) or morcon (rolled beef flanks) and leche flan (custard with caramel glaze).