Storytelling is a central theme when it comes to our culture, especially during the Christmas season. We all know the story of the child born in a manger and that of the bearded man who leaves presents under the tree. But what most of us don’t know is the story of the “first” Christmas celebrated in what is now known as the Philippines.
The legend of the “first” Filipino Christmas
This story takes place in what people now know as Bolinao, Pangasinan. The year was 1324 A.D. and Fr. Odorico of Pordenone, a Franciscan friar-slash-missionary explorer, had found himself on the shores of a yet to be conquered land.
Due to stormy weather, Fr. Odorico and his companions were forced to take refuge on the shores of Bolinao. There, they were met by “hostile natives” who didn’t take very kindly to their appearance. With a “prayer on his lips and a black cross in his hand,” Fr. Odorico steeled himself and made his way over to the natives.
As soon as they realized that the friar meant them no harm, the locals’ disposition changed and they welcomed the party. Surrounded by his companions and the natives of Bolinao, Fr. Odorico was said to have celebrated the first Catholic mass in the Philippines—two centuries before the Spaniards arrived.
According to the historical marker in St. James the Great Parish Church in Bolinao, Fr. Odorico even baptized some of the Malay immigrants that he encountered on his journey.
All of these events were said to occur on the 25th of December, 1324.
For all intents and purposes, this is not a historical account of what occurred centuries ago. First and foremost, the concept of the Philippines as a nation was born during the Spanish occupation. Prior to that, the “Philippines” was an archipelago composed of several kingdoms and tribes that lorded over their own autonomous territories.
Secondly, most of pre-colonial Philippine history has been lost to time. There are some written accounts on the history and way of life of our ancestors, but many of them were recorded by foreigners, which means they took on an “on the outside looking in” perspective.
Though Fr. Odorico was indeed a real person who was sent to the East as a missionary in the 12th century by the Holy See, it was unlikely that he ever set foot in pre-colonial Philippines. Majority of the Vatican-verified historical accounts of his mission show no records of him meeting locals and celebrating a Christmas mass in Bolinao.
Lastly, this story has mostly been passed down through oral tradition, with its tendency to blur details because of the passage of time, the frailty of human memory, and plain human creativity. It has even been refuted by historian Dr. William Henry Scott in his book “Prehispanic Source Material for the Study of Philippine History.”
Legends live on—for better or worse
While all signs of the tale of Fr. Odorico and the “first” Christmas in the Philippines point to myth, it’s still an interesting story. Majority of our pre- colonial history has been lost to time and to the zeal of our religious colonizers, so it makes sense that tall tales like this have a place in our culture. You know, like filling in the blanks.
And for the most part, this particular tale is harmless. The worst thing that could happen if you tell this story at a party is another attendee refuting the whole thing, or blank stares by uninterested listeners.
Other legends or myths in our history, though, are not as benign.
To this day, false narratives propagated by people in power are being used to rewrite our bloody history (I’m looking at you, Marcos family). When a story is told enough times—or when the news says the same thing over and over again—the lie starts looking like the truth.
Even more than actions, words have power and it’s our responsibility to keep track of all these tall tales so they’d never overshadow the truth.
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Writer: ANDREIANA YUVALLOS