Essay from the Field

--Field Work / Field Talk--

"The Christmas Table in Cebu, the Philippines"

YAMAGUCHI Kiyoko (Division of Southeast Asian Area Studies)

In Cebu, Christmas is a half-year celebration. It starts from September, becomes lively with fancy parties from December, and lasts until February. People try to "enjoy life, rather than to grieve," so practically, there is no Advent abstinence.1 Towns are filled with Christmas tunes and smiles.

Food is a must for these joyful gatherings (and actually, also for official negotiations, academic conferences, and funeral parades). As one of the biggest celebrations of the year, along with Sinulog and Easter, the Noche Buena (Christmas mid-night) dinner must be special.2

On Christmas Eve, 2002, I was invited to a friend's house in Cebu City. My friend flew back from Hong Kong, her sister from Manila, and her father from Leyte -just for Christmas. It was a heart-warming family season.

We started snacking in the evening, leaving some energy (to eat) for the midnight. The most eye-catching food was the pre-ordered lechon-baboy, or "roasted whole-pig." This festive food is proudly displayed on many party tables. Lechon is a nationwide feast, throughout the year.3

I was told by many Cebuanos that "Tagalogs don't know how to cook lechon. Lechon Cebuano is the best". . Cebuanos put herbs and salt in the emptied stomach of the raw meat (at that point it can still be called the carcass of the pig, with the entire head, legs and fresh-pink skin). As a result, the pork becomes flavorful after several hours of roasting. "But lechon Tagalog is simply grilled. The meat itself has no taste, so they have to prepare a gravy," say the Cebuanos. They say this even though not all of them actually have been to Manila and eaten lechon Tagalog. Maybe this is a part of "local identity building" in opposition to Manila-centered "Filipino culture".4

  1. Advent is the month of preparation before Christmas, and Catholics are supposed to avoid indulgence.
  2. Sinulog is an annual fiesta in January, devoted to Cebu's patron saint Señor St. Niño.
  3. Originally, "lechon" means "(grilled) suckling-pig" in regional Spanish, but in Filipino-Spanish, "lechon" began to mean "grilled (meat)" -informed by Prof.s Sanchez and Navarro, History Department, Univ. of San Carlos, Cebu City. Other variations are : lechon-baka (beef BBQ), lechon-kawali (porkfat BBQ) or the most popular lechon-manok (chicken BBQ).
  4. Tagalogs are now the "majority" among the many ethnic groups in the Philippines. The present national language Filipino is based on the Tagalog tongue, against the Cebuanos' will.

"The Christmas Table in Cebu, the Philippines"
YAMAGUCHI Kiyoko (Division of Southeast Asian Area Studies)

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