How Disney (kind of) saved my Filipino Pasko

There’s so much about Pasko in the Philippines that’s impossible to pack into a suitcase and take wherever I celebrate — which is partly why the latest Christmas ad from Disney hit me so hard when I first watched it.

Each year, my Christmas wish is to spend the holiday season in the Philippines. I know. A vacation to a tropical country is a cliché ask, but something else makes Pasko in the Philippines so worthwhile for me. 

Yes, there’s the family time that I’d get from the trip: my mom, two of my brothers, a slew of nieces and nephews, and more cousins than I can count live there. But there’s also this almost magical confluence of religious and cultural traditions that creates such a unique holiday experience in the country. It’s something that I’ve never been able to recapture during all my Christmases spent in Vancouver, where I’ve lived for most of my life. 

Some of My Favourite Pasko Traditions

Pasko is the Tagalog word for Christmas Day, but it’s also used to refer to the entire Christmas season, which stretches throughout what Filipinos call the “Ber” months (a.k.a. September, October, November, and December). It isn’t uncommon to see parols — colourful star-shaped lanterns — and Christmas lights go up as soon as summer is over!  

Karra Barron surrounded by parols in the Philippines.
The author surrounded by parols in the Philippines. Photo Submitted.

You’d think such a prolonged state of merriment would fizzle out by the time the sleigh bells ring in December, but that’s when the season really kicks off. Amid holiday shopping at the tiangges and Christmas bazaars, where the classic song “Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit” is on repeat, you’ll find Filipinos waking up before dawn to complete the nine days of Simbang Gabi. These special Catholic masses lead up to Christmas Eve and if you go to every single one, a special wish of yours will come true. 

Real talk: sure, wishes are great, but what I really loved about Simbang Gabi was the food sold by vendors outside the churches. Waking up while the stars are still out is worth it if I can get some fresh bibingka (rice cake baked in banana leaves) and puto bumbong (ube-flavoured glutinous rice topped with muscovado sugar and crunchy coconut). 

Then there’s the main event: Christmas Eve. Various extended family members start trickling in before dinner, which was always a buffet feast with Filipino BBQ, lechon, pancit, and more. Inevitably, someone would turn on the karaoke and a game of tongits or mahjong between the elders would kick off. Everything builds to midnight when we’d exchange presents, but more importantly, when Noche Buena would begin (clearly, food is my love language).

This Spanish tradition, which means good night, is another big feast. Everyone’s Noche Buena table looks different, but usually features some combination of meat dishes and sweets. At our house, it was typically pineapple-glazed ham, ensaymada (a bready pastry topped with icing and shredded cheese), and cups of hot tsokolate made from cacao tablea.

There’s so much about Pasko in the Philippines that’s impossible to pack into a suitcase and take wherever I celebrate — which is partly why that Christmas ad from Disney hit me so hard when I first watched it. 

Pasko Gets the Disney Treatment

I genuinely didn’t know what to expect when I hit play on that ad. My breath stuttered when the screen filled with parols, which turned out to be at the heart of the story of the changing relationship between a lola and her apo. By the time the ad was done, my face was drenched in tears (Disney and Kleenex must have a partnership, right?). I was left with such a yearning for my own grandmother and the Christmases we spent together in the Philippines. 

But as excited as I was to see my Pasko experiences given the Disney treatment, I was also really confused by their ad. Pasko has always felt so personal to me and non-existent to non-Filipinos that I couldn’t comprehend why Disney had zeroed in on it like this. My partner jokingly said, as he stared in horror at my tear-streaked face, “Why are they terrorizing Filipinos like this?”

Turns out, it was another case for why it’s so important to have diverse representation in corporate boardrooms. According to Buzzfeed, the project was led by director of brand marketing and creative, Angela Affinita, whose personal stories inspired the ad.

“The ad for me is such a great reflection of the bonds between families,” Affinita said in an interview with The Drum. “We all have unique traditions, especially at Christmas, so being able to draw on my own experience with my Filipina grandmother and the making of star lanterns to bring a level of authentic creativity is pretty special.” 

With a Filipina behind the camera, I’m praying that Disney (and other major Western media) will continue to spotlight Filipino culture and experiences going forward — because their ad came just in time to help me reframe how I want to celebrate the holidays this year.

Pasko Without the Plane Ticket

It’s been almost a decade since the last time I was back in the Philippines during the holiday season. My immediate family is spread across Manila, Vancouver, and the United States (I’m in this camp since I moved to Boston last year). This means that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been wishing my mom and siblings Maligayang Pasko via screens for a long time. 

Yet, despite all my heartache and nostalgia for Pasko in the Philippines, Disney’s ad showed me that incorporating whatever traditions I can is enough to make me feel closer to my family and the country that I love during this time of year. 

So for Pasko 2020 in Boston, I’ve put up my parol-esque tree topper and have a recipe for pineapple ham ready to go. And since Pasko hits at different time zones for our family, I’ll forgo the midnight Noche Buena in favor of enjoying my ensaymada and hot tsokolate with them. 

It’s not quite the same, but it’s still pretty magical. 

See also: Filipino is just the first level

Featured photo credit: Disney UK

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