( For Jean Marella, a quality assurance specialist, Christmas in the 90s meant picking out her best outfit to go to the Araneta Center (now Araneta City) in a day that includes a happy meal, carnival rides, and soaking up the colorful lights from the OG shopping district's giant Christmas tree.

That blueprint of family time, community, and holiday merriment has proven to be a winning formula for decades as the giant Christmas trees got bigger and brighter as shopping malls and townships grew to mammoth sizes. Before the show-stopping yuletide displays of 2022, Araneta in Cubao was the go-to place, even for those live in far-flung Luzon provinces.

"Nagbibihis akong maganda. Sa Araneta kasi meron ding indoor go-kart sa taas, mag-go-kart muna ako tapos manonood na kami ng Christmas display, tapos kakain. Excited din ako pag lalabas na si Baby Jesus do'n sa display."

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The Araneta Christmas Tree

Things went down at Araneta Fiesta Park, where a large outdoor tree wrapped in lights and dotted with enormous ornaments served as the centerpiece of the Christmas wonderland. At that time, nobody was doing gigantic Christmas trees just yet, and what started as a one-time thing eventually became tradition. It didn’t make sense to stop when it was so quintessentially Christmas and people looked forward to it every year. Things only got bigger.

"It’s a tradition talaga. The management, the Araneta family, they want to keep this tradition. That's why we're making sure that every year the giant Christmas Tree Lighting is symbolic: it’s the start of Christmas. September pa lang, Pasko na," said Marj Go, the AVP for Marketing of Araneta Group of Companies.

Tree lightings were an event of its own, usually superpowered by celebrities and key people in the industry. German Moreno, known as Kuya Germs, often accompanied the public as they watched the tree come to life. In succeeding years, winning pageant queens from the Binibining Pilipinas franchise, chaired by Stella Marquez de Araneta herself, also graced the tree lighting with their presence. Recent attendees and hosts include beauty queens Megan Young and Pia Wurtzbach.

Stars like Fernando Poe Jr., Nora Aunor, Sharon Cuneta, and Kris Aquino visited in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Comedian Vice Ganda and Korina Sanchez also went during the mid-2010s.

The fanfare brought in so many people, secured sales for the day, filled restaurants, and everyone walked out with gifts in shopping bags. More and more people would come, and other malls followed suit in hopes of attracting consumers in droves.

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Christmas on Display, Fiesta Carnival

Araneta was also known for its annual Christmas on Display exhibition which started in 1966 at the Manila COD Department Store, which relocated to Cubao that year. The installation featured huge moving parts, animated mannequins, and real-life statues that depicted Christmas stories. People flocked to the display every year, with many children sitting atop their parents’ shoulders hoping to catch a good view.

The Fiesta Carnival was another holiday staple in Araneta, located near COD, which offered various games and activities. Marella was particularly fond of the indoor go karts when she went in her youth: "Excited ako pag Pasko kasi pupunta kami do'n tapos mag-go-kart ako."

Most people came for the show and games, but a lot of people lingered afterwards to take as many photos as they could—solo, in units, with the family, and of the grand displays. Smartphones in the ‘80s weren’t a thing just yet, so people came extra prepared with cameras and film.

"[Lagi kami] nagpi-picture solo-solo magkakapatid. Tapos lalagay sa album," Marella said.

The exhibition stopped in the early 2000s when the department store moved. People found other ways to celebrate Christmas, until it came back in 2018 bigger than ever. Fast forward a year and COVID-19 happened.

It’s been a long time since Marella last went to Araneta for COD and Fiesta Carnival. Though memories fade over time, she remembers the feeling pretty well: "Di ko na masyado maalala, basta masaya ako," noting that the Fiesta Carnival was "the best."

Also read: The Reinvention of Cubao Expo in the Face of a Pandemic

How Araneta makes it happen

Christmas is technically just one day, but Filipinos take it so seriously that it is anticipated as early as September and celebrated for the next three months. According to Go, "it takes about six to eight months of planning before your actual implementation," from pitching a concept, preparing presentations, finalizing budgets, setting things up, and finally unveiling it to the public with superstar guests in attendance.

Unlike other malls that focus on indoor decor and hang lights outside, Araneta City has more ground to cover, a double-edged sword that summons bigger logistical challenges and grander holiday installations to welcome thousands. Restaurant staff, mall staff, guards, and admin teams mentally and physically prepare for the influx of people during the holidays, heightened by the pretty displays.

"We want the whole city to become a destination. People will not just go here for the giant tree but people will go here because they want to explore the whole city," Go said.

Despite different managements and owners, malls and establishments in the mixed-use complex must follow the annual theme while presenting a unique display to ensure that no two experiences are the same, providing guests a richer experience when they visit. Even the December shows in Araneta Coliseum are a deciding factor on the year’s theme.

"We’re seen in EDSA, in P. Tuazon, and Aurora. Even those vicinities, we also make sure that it's festive," she added.

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How COVID changed Christmas

COVID surges and lockdowns for the past two years meant a Christmas spent mostly at home, but kids took the stronger blow as they were completely barred from going out to keep them safe.

"Even though the kids weren't allowed, [we thought of the] older ones. We still want to bring that Christmas feeling to everyone. It's sort of like giving hope to everyone that this will pass. It's bringing hope to the Filipinos that we will get through this. We can still celebrate Christmas," Go said.

"2020 and 2021, it was kind of subdued. But it was still celebratory. We still want people to feel Christmas."

Like most other things that had to stay alive during the pandemic, Araneta management brought the Christmas festivities online, where those cooped up at home could watch tree lighting and moving displays through a livestream.

Now, displays need to be a visual feast that can be posted online and experienced in real life. "The online world, it has helped us gain awareness and traction," Go said, ensuring that everything is worthy of an Instagram post or TikTok. "We want them to be here also because the experience is actually different when you see it [in person]," she added.

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What's next?

Christmas on Display and Fiesta Carnival are back, along with the giant Christmas tree that never left. The tree has been lit for at least two weeks now, so you can catch it when you pass by. The two nostalgic events are opening this weekend to deliver much-needed holiday cheer.

Here’s a hack from Go: try going on weekdays when it’s less packed.

It’s been a tough two years, but Go said the tradition is likely to go on, adapting to the changing times to accommodate all generations: "It will still run for decades. It will probably be a mix of the old and the new in a way that we can insert some new technology, a projection, a hologram. In terms of amusement parks, we can have bigger parks."

"It keeps on evolving, but the idea is still there, but the experience is different just to cater it to the market," Go said.

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