Fireworks to fiery curries

On song ... Santa, his reindeer and some honorary Christmas elves carol to lunchtime shoppers in Singapore.
On song ... Santa, his reindeer and some honorary Christmas elves carol to lunchtime shoppers in Singapore. Photo: AFP

The Philippines leads in celebrations of the season, writes David Wilson.

So you think Christmas starts early in Sydney? Ho, ho, ho! Try the Philippines' manic capital, Manila. There, as across the "land of fiestas", the people love Christmas so much they make it last virtually half the year. The season opens about the time of Halloween (October 31) - or earlier: an incarnation of Santa has reportedly surfaced on Philippines television in July.

In tune with the country's "work-hard-party-harder" spirit, the snow-free season rumbles on through the "Ber" months (September-December). The season only fizzles out after the January 6 Feast of the Three Kings.

The marathon Yuletide may well be the world's longest and merriest. "It's so much fun compared to dreary Sydney," Manila-raised, Bondi-based event organiser Anna Palacio says.

According to Palacio, Christmas in her native town inspires everyone, rich and poor, to adorn their homes with streamers and examples of the Filipino answer to the Christmas tree: the handcrafted "parol" lantern.

Traditionally made from bamboo and Japanese paper, the tropical prop has two tails like light rays and multiple meanings. It stands for the star that pointed the Magi to the manger and light's triumph over darkness.

In a classic expression of Filipino hospitality, it also embodies a way of inviting Christ's spirit into the home and repudiating the "no room at the inn" line that drove his parents into a manger.

The parol pops up everywhere, even dangling in miniature form from the psychedelically-painted converted trucks called jeepneys.

The rumpus generated by the mishmash of vehicles negotiating Manila's crazy streets competes with the tolling of church bells and carollers.

Armed with maracas and tambourines, the carollers alternate traditional Tagalog numbers with US standards. Santa Claus is Coming to Town rings out.

In the final frantic run-up to December 25, shopping hours are extended, paving the way for last-gasp "midnight madness bazaars".

The biggest bazaar unfolds at the local World Trade Centre. Other shopping hotspots include the Manila Polo Club and Greenhills Shopping Centre, which shuts some streets in its compound for outdoor night markets featuring free concerts.

Despite the mega-mall mammon aspect of Christmas in Manila, Christian spirit prevails, as befits a Roman Catholic bastion with more than 80 per cent of its 90-million population wedded to the faith.

From December 16, nine 4am "cockerel masses" run, heralded by bells and bands that act as alarm clocks.

The faithful flock to venues such as the festively resplendent Manila Cathedral and Quiapo Church, aka the Black Nazarene, which lures all walks of life.

After the last service, on Noche Buena ("Good Night") or Christmas Eve, fireworks explode. During the all-night after-party, revellers feast on delicacies such as queso de bola (small, spherical Edam cheese) and puto bungbong (a sugared mix of purple yam and shredded coconut). Most of the food is heavily fried. Alcohol flows. Consequently, the good night may cause a bad morning for many revellers.

The Philippines does Christmas better than anywhere else in Asia. But most Asian nations embrace it to a degree, encouraged by the festival's commercial dimension and the liberal application of the colour red, which is linked with luck.

India

Blessed with more Christians than Australia has people, India celebrates Christmas vigorously. At the heart of the festival, the mango plays a sacred role, its twigs and leaves supplanting pine sprigs and holy wreaths.

Clay oil-burning lamps placed on walls and roofs glimmer, but fairy light-festooned trees among other Western paraphernalia are increasingly entering the picture.

"It has become more commercial and, well, fun," says yoga guru Sarina Jain, painting Calcutta in particular as "very festive". Goa, of course, goes wild with beach parties everywhere.

Singapore

Singapore treats Christmas as an all-singing, all-dancing gala feast for the senses. Picture countdown parties, rock concerts, art exhibitions, shopping promotions - you name it. It is as if a little girl has hijacked proceedings and thrown together every event she can dream up with a pinch of pixie dust.

"Streets are transformed into a candy land dripping with gumdrops, liquorice, candy canes and jelly beans, as Christmas carols fill the air with festive cheer," says a local Christmas in the Tropics guide.

Tokyo

A Tokyo department store once famously erected a window display featuring a crucified chocolate Santa Claus.

Apparently confused about how to do Christmas, the Japanese deny it a public holiday and treat it like a cross between Easter and Valentine's Day with more stress on alcohol and extravagant presents than murmurs of endearment.

Young couples wind up at love hotels. The less fired-up gaze at the 1953 Audrey Hepburn romantic comedy Roman Holiday before venturing out to fancy restaurants. Turkey is off the menu, although KFC offers a popular Christmas chicken deal.

"Christmas cake" - a splurge of sponge cake, strawberries and whipped cream - is popular too, as are light shows.

Kuala Lumpur

More about Father Christmas than Jesus Christ in a predominantly Muslim country, the run-up to December 25 is gaudy. Jazzed-up versions of Jingle Bells resound around the space age megamalls.

But on the day, the mood is less frenetic. As is customary in Malaysia during festivals, Christian families entertain guests at their homes, in keeping with "rumah terbuka" or open house.

On the menu, in keeping with the eclectic tone of Malaysian cuisine, you are as likely to find piquant devil's curry as turkey.

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