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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Dawn Unity Column: How Simbang Gabi Carries a Filipino Christmas Tradition

By Monsignor David A. Sork, Contributing Writer

This year the Philippine Islands are celebrating the 500th anniversary of Christianity.

Catholicism was firmly established only in the Philippines in the continent of Asia, thanks to the Spanish friars who landed with Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. He first set foot on the island of Cebu and later claimed the country in the name of King Philip. Reigning Emperor of Spain. There the first baptism took place.

Christianity was around a century before our own country. More than 85% of the people in the Philippines practice Catholicism.

About 30 years ago in my former parish, a group of Filipino parishioners asked me if we could celebrate Simbang Gabi.

I had no idea what they were talking about, but I definitely learned and adopted it. simbang gabi [pronounced “Sim-BONG gah-BEE”] It is a nine-day festival beginning on 16 December in which Filipinos prepare for Christmas.

Simbang Gabi originated in the Philippines in 1668, when missionaries from Mexico introduced the practice.

The Spanish missionaries saw this as an opportunity to preach the gospel to the people. Simbang Gabi teaches the meaning of Christmas and how to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. Also, it was used to make people understand about the meaning of Mass.

Simbang Gabi was a time of evangelism from the very beginning, when the rich and the poor, men and women, children and the elderly, as a community waited for the coming of the Lord and rejoiced in the promise of the Messiah.

The priests decided to hold an eve puja so that the farmers could listen to Mass before working in the fields.

The twinkling candles in the star-shaped paroles (Christmas lanterns) that decorated humble homes guided church-goers early in the morning on their way to Simbang Gabi. The pre-morning Mass was announced by the ringing of church bells.

In some rural areas, an hour before the start of Simbang Gabi, a brass band played Christmas music throughout the city. The priests of the parish awoke from far and wide to knock on the door and gathered the devotees to join the morning prayers. The farmers as well as the fishermen got up early to hear the gospel before going to work and asking for the blessings of a good harvest.

The Simbang Gabi tradition continues in the United States, but has been slightly altered from its original form.

Most Novena Masses take place indoors in the evening, not at dawn. In addition, not all parishes celebrate the full nine days. Sometimes neighboring parishes take one out of every nine nights, and people walk from church to church for a novena.

In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the first celebration takes place in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and later in the parish throughout the Archdiocese.

Here at St. John Fisher’s Church we have been celebrating Simbang Gabi for over 10 years.

This usually happened on a Saturday night. We have an active, vibrant Filipino community here, and they have worked hard every year to celebrate this festival.

There is a special choir which sings many hymns in Tagalog. Most of the Mass is in English. People dress up in their traditional clothes. It is an event that is open to all parishioners and enjoyed by all who attend.

In some years Bishop Oscar Solis, then Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles, himself a Filipino, presided over the Mass. I always used to celebrate. Most years it was just yours truly, that is the celebrant, an honorary Filipino for the night. Mass is followed by a reception in Filipino tradition with plenty of Filipino food and entertainment.

Last year due to COVID-19, the church was limited to a small choir and procession participants with parole. We livestreamed the mass so that everyone can watch it from home.

In order to adhere to health protocols this year, we agreed to hold the celebration at 11 am, so that Filipino parishioners can host an outdoor reception and offer traditional Filipino food in a healthy environment. This happened last Sunday.

As you have your own way of celebrating the holiday season, I hope you appreciate a little more how our Filipino brothers and sisters prepare for the celebration of the birth of the Messiah.

Monsignor David Sork is the pastor of St. John Fisher Catholic Church in Rancho Palos Verdes.

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