Category Archives: Filipino Custom

New Year’s Eve

On the last day of the year, we tidied up the house, prepared our dinner, and while waiting for the food to be cooked, played with the toys from Santa.

IMG_0021Rubber Band-Powered Airplanes

IMG_1174Remote-Controlled Helicopter

If we were in Manila, there would be a big party (I come from a big family) with abundant food and loud fireworks.

Thanks to Face Time, my children were able to see how their titas and lola greeted the New Year.  They oohed and ahhhed as they watched the fireworks right outside their lola’s house–16 hours ahead of our own New Year celebration.


My own mom was very big on spending Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve in our own home.  She wanted all of us together as a family. Our tradition was to spend Christmas and New Year’s lunch with cousins, and aunts, and grandparents, but the Eve was reserved just for us.

Aside from wearing red (lucky color), and wearing polka dots (symbol of money), putting money in pockets (to greet the year with pockets filled with money), jumping (for children to grow taller), and making noise (to ward off evil spirits), we would also turn on all the lights around the house on New Year’s Eve. On the dining table would be a huge basket of fruits to symbolize abundant blessings for the New Year.


My mom would even open all the windows “to welcome the luck of the new year in”.  Not too far behind her would be my older sister shutting the windows because leaving the windows and doors open meant letting the firecracker fumes in the house as well.

Except for donning something with polka dots, and opening the windows and doors (it was too cold), I followed my mom’s tradition of welcoming the year.  We had a quiet dinner at home with a home-cooked meal.  At midnight, we clinked flute glasses filled with sparkling apple cider and Prosecco.

And so, we welcome 2013 full of hope and excitement for the endless possibilities that this year may bring.

Santa Claus

Years ago in my final panel interview for my very first teaching job in a Catholic school, a priest (who was part of a ten-man panel) asked me about my thoughts on Santa Claus.

He was basically asking me if I was going to include Santa in my  Christmas curriculum.  I think it was at this moment that it became clear to me that my role as a teacher should not include talking about Santa and his gifts.

In my interview, I said that Santa is a family matter.  I said that I would defer to the parents who I believe, know what is best for the family.  I really wanted to be sensitive to the families whose holiday season may not include him.

Receiving gifts from Santa was not my own family’s tradition.

Santa Claus was a character that I only saw on Christmas cards as a young child in Manila.    I was not the least curious about him because my parents never talked about him when I was growing up. Because of this, I always thought that he was a fictional character similar to the Disney princesses.

When my own children became old enough to understand the concept of receiving gifts from Santa, my husband and I had to decide if we were going to support this or not.


We are now living in the US and not the Philippines.  I know that they are going to ask questions because Santa can be seen everywhere–TV advertisements, print ads, and retail and grocery stores.  We even see him in the mall for photo ops.

What tipped the scale for me was when my son came home from school with a wish list for Santa.


Lillian Katz, an international leader in childhood education, said in an interview regarding the distinction between child’s culture and heritage:

We want children to appreciate their heritage. At the same time, we must acknowledge that a young child’s culture represents his or her actual day-to-day experience.

With that in mind,  my children expect Santa to visit our house in the early morning of Christmas day.  Santa drops by and leaves presents under the tree with my children’s name.  When cookies and milk are left on the dining table for him to eat, he happily takes the treat and leaves a thank you note.


Santa even uses a different wrapping paper when wrapping his presents.  Even the manner that the presents are wrapped is very different from how presents are usually wrapped in my household.

Yup, we are loving Santa.  We anxiously await his visit and grateful for his generosity.  We compare his ability to give to God’s generosity.

And to make sure that the cultural heritage is not forgotten, we go to church on Christmas eve, we light the Advent Wreath during the Advent season, and we celebrate Noche Buena with family and good friends.

My children are making new Christmas tradition that I am hopeful will always reflect our Filipino cultural heritage.

IMG_1179       IMG_1180

Christmas Countdown

Filipinos usher Christmas with nine days novena Masses. Simbang Gabi or “Dawn Masses” as these Masses are called, are usually celebrated at the crack of dawn, hence; its other name, Misa de Gallo (Rooster’s Mass). The first day is on December 16th.

I have always tried to complete the Simbang Gabi, but it is really difficult to be up in the morning to attend 4:30 AM Masses. I probably only completed a few.

Recently, churches have offered options to Novena-goers. Simbang Gabi is now celebrated in some churches in the evening (instead of early morning).

Simbang Gabi is the final stretch leading up to the main event—Christmas Eve Mass. Churches are festive with parols (lantern stars), lights, and early morning treats of puto bungbong and bibingka. When I was younger, these Masses were the perfect opportunity for me to reconnect with neighbors and friends I don’t see often due to conflicting schedules.

SONY DSCParolSONY DSCLots of lights

Churches in my new community have adopted the Filipino tradition of Simbang Gabi. Although it is different from how it is celebrated in the Philippines, I am grateful that we celebrate it in my local church. My children will see that unique practices and traditions from the Philippines have a place in the United States..

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Filipinos are respectful (magalang).

It is common among Filipinos to call someone who is older Ate, Kuya, Tita or Tito as a sign of respect, even if there is no blood relation.

I call the parents of my good friends Tita–Tita Lorna, Tita Mildred, Tita Edith etc.  My children now call my best friends Tita too–Tita Chelle, Tita Raquel, Tita Irma, Tita Mako etc.

Birthday cupcakes from Tita Cecile, a friend since Kindergarten

Tita Ria and Tita Bubbles when they hosted my children’s birthday party

My parents, although very friendly and warm, were very formal.  We addressed their friends Mister and Missus—Mr. Villanueva, Mr. Pineda, Mr. Vergara, Mr. Pagsanjan, Mrs. Gabaya.  I only got comfortable using Tita when I heard my friends call my mom, Tita.

Now that I am living in the United States, I am torn between having my children use first names for my friends, which is the American way, and having them use Auntie (or Uncle), which is the Filipino way.

I don’t think Filipinos living abroad would find using the latter strange, but I could imagine how foreigners would find this bizarre.  I am friends with grown children of American and European descent who call their parents and parents-in-law by their first names.

I figured that unless my friends insist that they be called by their first names, my children would address them respectfully by using Mister and Missus, Tito and Tita, or Auntie and Uncle.

“Good Morning, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, may I play with Johnny?”

“Tita, can I have a playdate?”

It is after all, the Filipino way.

What is Respect?

I send weekly emails to the parents of my students.  I find that this form of communication is an effective way to keep the parents in the loop.  After all, preschoolers don’t really go home and share in detail what happens in school.

Here is part of the email that I sent last Friday.

The Power of No

Children can say NO to me.  When it is time to clean up to prepare for another activity, a child can say, “No, not yet!”,  if he needs more time to complete a puzzle or to finish an artwork.

But the key is to let me know. If a child does not say anything, I will assume that:

a) the child did not hear me (at which case, I will think that the child has hearing problems or auditory processing issues); or

b) the child is choosing to ignore me (at which case, the consequence is that particular activity may not be an option for the child the next time).

The child has to respond respectfully. If I have a few more minutes to spare, then I will let him continue. If not because of our tight schedule, then I will offer to put the project aside to be worked on later, or I can suggest to take a photo of it if it cannot be saved.

My intention is to teach the child not only to be assertive, but also to respond appropriately to request/command.

We have been practicing to say– I am not done yet, may I have a few more minutes please?


This is my philosophy with my own children too.  When I call them for dinner and they are in a middle of setting up their army soldiers, they can nicely ask me if they can have a few more minutes to play.  If we are not running late, I will give them that extra time.

But if doing so would mess up our schedule, then I would say, “Sorry, not this time”.

It was difficult to do this at first, but when they realized that I was saying “no” not to be mean, they appreciated our system.

Now, this goes against the Philippine culture of respecting the elders–where children are expected to do everything that they are told without question.

During trips to the Philippines when my children were younger, they were always expected to give relatives (strangers, if you ask my children) a hug and a kiss. If they don’t do it (and I would totally leave it up to my children to decide), I would not hear the end of it.

Within earshot of everyone concerned, I would say to my children, “It is okay if you don’t want to give a hug right now, maybe later when you get to know tita more.  But you have to give some sort of acknowledgement–be respectful and say hi, wave, smile, or give a high five.  It is your choice, but you have to acknowledge that tita is saying hi to you.”

I want children (my own and my students) to understand that their feelings are very important and are valued and respected by me.  Respect goes both ways.

Filipino Halloween

It is Halloween!

I enjoy pumpkin latté  and carving pumpkins, but I really don’t care much about the costumes nor the trick-or-treating event itself.  Wearing costumes was never a tradition in Manila.




I heard that this is slowly changing though, as families in posh neighborhoods are starting to give out candies to little witches and ghouls (and their nannies).


Two things come to my mind when I think about this time of the year:

  • Semester break
  • Paying respects to my relatives who have passed

The school year in the Philippines is from June to March, and November is the halfway mark.  As a student and a teacher, I always enjoyed a couple of weeks off from school around this time.

November 1st and 2nd are special non-working holidays.  In the Catholic calendar, these days are called All Saint’s Day (Todos Los Santos) and All Soul’s Day (Undás), respectively.

Everyone takes advantage of the time off from work (and school) to go back home to honor their dead relatives.   My experience has taught me to bring a book —if I am not driving, and pack a lot of patience–if I am.

My first stop when I arrive in Manila.

Once in the cemetery, my family lights a candle, pray the rosary, and regale each other with stories about our deceased relatives.  I never met both of my grandfathers, so I appreciate hearing stories about them.

Now that I have adopted a new home, I am encouraging my children not only to participate in the American tradition of trick-or-treating, but also to observe the Philippine tradition of Todos Los Santos and Undás.  

Sure, they will wear costumes—this year, army soldier and ballerina witch.  But we will also say a special prayer, have flowers, and light candles at home in honor of those who have gone before us.

Trick-or-treating at the zoo

I am hopeful that they will continue to embrace this new tradition.

Filipino Hospitality

We already expect guests to live with us when they come over to visit.  And we welcome them all!

My children look forward to the pasalubong, but I think that much more than the treats, they enjoy the special attention and the unique social interaction.  When they find out that relatives are coming from Manila, they get giddy with excitement.

Flowers make the guest room look more inviting

I get excited when guests come over too.   There is just something comforting in sharing a home with good people.

My children have a better understanding of the Filipino hospitality when we open our home to guests.  They learn the behind-the-scenes preparation, which include cleaning the guest room and bathroom, washing the linens, and stocking the pantry and fridge, not to mention, tidying up the house.

Homemade door signs

Filipinos are known to be gracious hosts.  They offer the best room in the house and prepare the best meals for guests.   They stock up on the guests’ favorite items.  During meals, the best china and silverware are used. The host entertains the guests and makes them feel like they are part of the family.

Obviously, there will be changes to the host family’s routine, but Filipinos will ignore that inconvenience.  The host’s goal is to do whatever it takes to please the guests for the duration of their stay.  Gifts are even given before they go back home.

Gifts that I have ready for unexpected visitors

I can’t say that I am typical Filipina because as a host, I only practice some of these noble deeds, not all.  I have cleared my schedule several times to accommodate driving for guests (and then I would stay up late to finish work).

I have filled my fridge with milk, eggs, orange juice, yogurt, different kinds of cheeses, a variety of breads, several bottles of jam, cold cuts, and veggies–anything that my guests would be able to snack on and cook easily so they won’t get hungry while I am away at work.

And if I were not working, I would wake up earlier than the guest to make sure that breakfast is on the table when they wake up.  I have labored in the kitchen to make meals from scratch. 

But, I will not offer my bedroom to guests unless it is necessary.  And I don’t use special plates for my guests; I own only one set. (I would like to believe that the dishes that I use for my own family are befitting my guests too.)

I am gracious, but not to a fault.  If I know that I am overextending myself, I would let my guests know.  Instead of making breakfast for them before I leave for work, I would leave a note on the dining table and maybe pull some things out of the cupboard to let them know what options they have for breakfast.

I am hoping that my children embrace the aspect of our culture that honors family and friends, and understand that being a part of a family requires occasional sacrifices.


During my time, babies go home from the hospital with their ears already pierced.  I am not sure if this was a Filipino tradition or it was just my own family’s tradition.  But I know that when my sisters and I came home from the hospital, we had panahi (thread) soaked in mercurochrome already looped through the ear piercing (butas ng tenga).

I remember my very first arilyos (earring).  It was a turquoise blue stone that had a hinged-snap back.  I wore it everyday and every night, and never took it off.  They were only replaced when I outgrew them, I think, and my mom gave me something that my grandmother had given her.

Well, keeping with that family tradition, I made sure that my daughter had her ears pierced as soon as it was possible.    I found a pediatrician who does ear piercing (a very enterprising Filipina doctor who understood the  culture and tradition).

At nine months when I decided to have her ears pierced.

Last Thursday, we had an earring problem that ended in the injury clinic the very next day.  The pearl in my daughter’s earring fell.  She tried to remove the earring, but she accidentally pulled it in instead.  Yiiikes! The earring got stuck in her earlobe.

We tried to numb the area with ice.  That didn’t work.  My husband suggested that we take it off when she was asleep, that didn’t work either.  So off to the doctor the next day.

I couldn’t go with them, but I gave my husband instructions–crazy-only-mommy-can-think-of-instructions! 

  1. Ask the doctor if he can try to twist the earring out, so there won’t be any incision.  What?  Can you blame me for not wanting her to have a scar in the earlobe!
  2. Make sure to put in another earring so the hole won’t close.

Well, as you may have thought, none of my requests were followed.  An incision was made, but at the back so the scar won’t be seen!  Very smart, I thought! And the doctor said to let the ear heal and just get another ear piercing in 6 months.

And we thought we could yank it out!

My daughter was in good spirits all throughout.  No tears, no drama.  She knew that it had to be done, and she did it.   I have 6 months to look for a hypo-allergenic hinged-snap back so this doesn’t happen again.


This is how my daughter’s bed looks like in the morning.  If you think that it looks like it hasn’t been slept on, you are absolutely right.  She only sleeps on it for a few hours at night, and then leaves it before dawn for our warm Cal-King bed.

Co-sleeping works for my family, but I am sure that it does not work for all.

Before my husband and I decided to co-sleep with our firstborn, we researched on the pros and cons.  I certainly loved the many advantages; not having to walk to the crib for feeding is at the top of the list.

I consulted my pediatrician.  He said that a high percentage of parents who accidentally roll over infants in bed without ever waking up were either obese or alcoholic. Since my husband and I are neither alcoholic nor obese, we thought of giving our plan a try.

Co-sleeping turned out to be the best for us.  My sleep was only interrupted by feedings, which wasn’t so bad because I would fall back to sleep soon after my baby burped. When my son was two, we transferred him to a toddler bed we set up in our room, so my newborn daughter could co-sleep with us.  Only when we moved to a bigger house did the children start to sleep in their own beds.

The transition to sleeping in their own room was fortunately very easy.  I tucked them in their beds,  did the nighttime ritual (reading and praying), and then shut the door. Both slept straight through the night without problems. At that time my daughter still wore pull-ups.

It was only when my daughter was completely potty trained that she started sleeping with us again.  Instead of going back to her bedroom after a trip to the loo at night,  she would head to our bed, snuggle, and stay there until morning.  In Tagalog, we call this lambing, or showing affection.  I don’t find it intrusive.  In fact, I welcome it.

I know that there will come a time when my daughter would no longer sneak in our bedroom.  She would eventually  want her independence and her own space.  When that time comes, my husband and I would have lots of happy memories of cuddling with her. Until then, I look forward to waking up to her unique snore and finding her foot on my face.  And if I am lucky enough, I hope to wake up sweaty to find her little arms wrapped around my neck.


Wedding Dress

The moment the date was set for our wedding in San Francisco, I knew that my wedding dress was going to be made from pinya (pineapple fiber).  It was going to be a summer wedding, so the soft and sheer material would be perfect for the weather.

I had no idea back then how the fibers of the pineapple are made into this fabric. All I knew was that the fabric looked elegant and unique– quite extraordinary in a wedding outside of the Philippines.

Upon online research, I learned that the cloth is actually woven from leaves of a Spanish Red Pineapple.  It is expensive because only a handful of experienced hand weavers have perfected the craft.  Depending on how the fabric will be used, pinya can be blended with other fibers like abaca, cotton, and silk.

Because I was already living in the US when I was planning the wedding, I had to send my measurements to Manila.  I was adamant that my wedding dress not be turned into a gown; I didn’t want a train nor did I fancy a puffy skirt.  So my dress was actually just that, a simple but classic dress made from pinya fiber that was loomed in Aklan, and hand- embroidered in Taal.

My husband’s Barong Tagalog, the formal attire of Filipino men, had the same embroidery as my wedding dress.

There is more to a traditional Filipino wedding than the fabric used.  The actual ceremony itself and even the pre-wedding do’s and don’ts deserve their own post.

Fitting the wedding dress to make sure that, well—it fits!