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Simbang Gabi: Filipino tradition prepares the faithful to celebrate Christmas

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“Filipinos are everywhere — in the choir, as eucharistic ministers, lectors and leadership roles. It’s wonderful to become partners with the mission evangelization,” Bishop Solis said, adding his excitement to be celebrating nine different Simbang Gabi Masses throughout the archdiocese. (photo/Victor Alemàn)

Hundreds of Filipinos and non-Filipinos throughout Southern California gathered at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Downtown Los Angeles, for an Advent liturgy and parade procession, reflecting one of the oldest Christmastime traditions in the Philippines.

The 14th annual Simbang Gabi Mass on Dec. 15 kicked off nine days of prayer for peace and unity in churches around the world, leading up to Christmas Day.

“This is one of the largest annual events spearheaded by the Filipino Ministry of the Archdiocese [of Los Angeles], and we’re proud to have always had it here at the cathedral,” said Lem Amit, head coordinator from Our Lady of the Angels pastoral region, which hosted this year’s celebration. “Our goal as the Filipino Ministry is to encourage all the other parishes to have their own Simbang Gabi, and a duplication of tradition being carried into the future.”

With traditional Philippine song, dance and costume, Simbang Gabi fosters a spirit of camaraderie throughout the archdiocese.

More than 250 parishes gathered to watch and participate in the festivities, which included the colorful “Parade of Parols” (Philippine lanterns), followed by a multilingual Mass.

“Simbang Gabi is a great way for people from various ethnic backgrounds to come together as one body of the Church, to share in the Filipino Catholic tradition, here in the heart of Los Angeles,” shared Jessica Vitente, from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Rowland Heights. Vitente added that she looks forward to the nine-day novena Masses each year because “it helps me know and grow more in my Filipino heritage.”

“It helps me to religiously and spiritually prepare my mind and my heart for Jesus’ second coming,” added Vitente, who attends the opening Simbang Gabi Mass at the cathedral with her mom every year. “My favorite part is seeing our brothers in the clergy … celebrate the Eucharist, especially their gifts and talents in music.”

Archbishop José H. Gomez concelebrated the Mass with Bishop David G. O’Connell, Bishop Oscar Solis, Bishop Joseph V. Brennan, Bishop Edward W. Clark, Bishop Alexander Salazar, retired Bishop Gerald Wilkerson and Cardinal Roger Mahony.

More than 100 priests from parishes around the regions also celebrate the eucharistic liturgy, which was attended by thousands.

“Los Angeles is the largest archdiocese in the U.S., and the most culturally diverse. And that’s why it’s important we celebrate these kinds of traditions for all cultures — Hispanic, Chinese, Korean, Filipino. ... It is a representation of the immigrant Catholic Church in America,” said Auxiliary Bishop Oscar Solis. “It adds color and vibrancy to our faith communities, and we welcome these celebrations as part of Church life in the archdiocese.”

The parol procession is also a pre-liturgy tradition for Filipinos. Women in colorful Filipiniana gowns, and men in the traditional Barong Tagalog formal dress shirt, held up candles and led the parade in song and dance through the aisles of the cathedral.

Following the dancers was a Philippine-style banda performing traditional music and representatives from more than 100 churches, businesses, committees and organizations across the archdiocese. Each group carried its respective banners and handcrafted parol lanterns, to be blessed at the end of Mass and taken home.

“It’s so important for us to look at our own culture, who we are and where we come from,” Amit said. “It’s important for our children and children’s children to know the traditions and customs we celebrate, so that we can continue being proud Filipinos.”

Gift of devotion

Simbang Gabi, which translates to “Mass at night” in Tagalog, is the celebration of Christmas throughout hundreds of cultures and dialects that make up the Philippine islands. The custom started in 16th-century Mexico, when Father Fray Diego de Sofia began celebrating Masses at dawn, traditionally called the Misa de Gallo (Mass of the Rooster) or Misa de Aguinaldo (Mass of Gift) over nine consecutive days. The regular Masses started at 4 a.m. and began mid-December in the season of Advent.

Spanish missionaries introduced similar outdoor dawn Masses to the Philippines around the 1700s, hoping to plant the seed of Christianity among the provinces and their natives. They held outdoor Masses for Filipino farmers and fishermen, who set out for work at the crack of dawn, and invited their families to give thanks to God for a bountiful harvest. 

The early village Masses also included bands playing traditional pasodobles: songs and dances rooted in Spanish culture. Tolling church bells signaled worshippers to come and celebrate, as the villagers prepared their homes for the parol procession.

Brightly lit, star-shaped parols — colorful paper lanterns, made with various materials including Japanese/crepe paper, Capiz shell pieces and bamboo sticks — also lined the streets with light from candles or coconut oil, guiding travelers and churchgoers on their way. The word “parol” comes from the Spanish word for lantern, farol, and represents the bright star that pointed the Three Kings to Bethlehem on their way to pay homage to baby Jesus.

In the Philippines, parols come in many shapes, colors and sizes, and take their roots from Mexican piñatas. As styles and materials developed, many communities have friendly parol-making competitions between families, and the craft is encouraged by the Church as a devotional offering to the Lord. 

Today, Philippine parishes switch off between early morning or evening Masses and festivities. Churches celebrate various styles of worship, which include readings and songs proclaiming the Annunciation of Mary and the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the fruit of her womb. Each church also has a traditional Nativity scene, with the baby Jesus added to the display on Christmas Eve. 

Some parishes perform the Panunuluyan (“looking for lodging”), a re-enactment of the Holy Family’s journey to Bethlehem. The pageant-like play features a couple (often a young boy and girl) as Joseph and Mary, going from house to house and looking for a place to stay. The Panunuluyan was influenced by Hispanic missionaries and the Mexican las posadas procession.

After the Mass and procession, the festivities continue with music, dancing and delicious food — including Filipino delicacies bibingka (rice cakes), puto bumbong (sweet purple yam cooked in bamboo), arroz caldo (chicken porridge) and salabat (ginger tea).

“Simbang Gabi is beautiful, not only because of the number of people all invited, but the overall spirit of the Church,” Bishop Solis noted. “The music, liturgy and colorful parol lanterns are all meaningful, because we bring the light of Christ throughout the Church and world. Many years later, the spirit of Simbang Gabi is still maintained, [especially here] in our diverse archdiocese.”

Season of anticipation

At the opening Mass in the cathedral, Bishop Clark gave a beautiful reflection about waiting in joyful hope for the coming of the Lord.

“Simbang Gabi is one of the most beautiful expressions of the season of Advent, which is about anticipation — when we anticipate something, we are filled with hope to see it realized. The virtue of Simbang Gabi and Advent is patience,” Clark shared in his homily. “Practice patience, and when Christmas comes, you will have a real sense that your anticipation has been fulfilled.”

The Mass was accompanied with beautiful music by the Our Lady of the Angels regional grand choir, made up of more than 100 voices from 12 different parishes in the region. Accompanied by members of the Filipino American Symphony Orchestra, the grand choir sang traditional Christmas hymns by famous Filipino composers like Ryan Cayabyab, Manoling Francisco and Lucio San Pedro.

“I wanted to bring the Filipino flavor in the liturgy, and so I chose many familiar Tagalog songs that people will remember from past Simbang Gabi traditions in the provinces,” said Cris Avendaño, who directed the music at this year’s celebration. “The most important thing for me is bringing everyone together. To have one grand Simbang Gabi as an opening — that’s a wonderful opportunity for us to gather together as Filipinos and non-Filipinos.”

Choir member Joel Bautista, who represented Holy Family Church in Glendale and the Filipino organization Couples for Christ, agreed that Christmas for the Filipino community isn’t the same without the Simbang Gabi.

“This is one of the milestones of our culture — it’s always a real joy to be able to do something that’s beautiful, and glorifies God,” Bautista said.

This year’s theme — “Hesus, gawin Mo kaming masaganang Daluyan ng Iyong Banal na Awa” — pays homage to Pope Francis’ jubilee Year of Mercy, and translates to “Jesus, make us generous dispensers of your divine mercy.”

The Prayers of the Faithful were read by ministers speaking in different dialects of the Tagalog language. Baskets of non-perishable goods, put together by various parish communities, were also brought up during the offertory.

As a special post-Communion treat, around 40 Filipino sang traditional Tagalog hymns, led by Father Adrian San Juan from St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Reseda.

“We practiced a couple of times in rehearsal, and it was truly special. It fosters our own fraternity and support among the brother Filipino priests,” said Bishop Solis, who also sang in the priest choir. “And what are Filipinos without singing? It has to be complete — kainan (food), kantahan (singing), and karaoke-han.”

The Mass ended in joyful song with a Filipino favorite, “Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit,” by Vicente D. Rubi.

Father Albert Avenido, who pastors at St. Philomena in Carson and served as the chaplain and this year’s Simbang Gabi committee adviser, shared his acknowledgements to the many ministries that participated in the beloved Mass.

Avenido also recognized newly-installed Philippine consulate general, Adelio Cruz, who was present at the cathedral with his wife and staff.

More than 250 volunteers helped to pull everything together, from the parol procession and liturgy, to the after-Mass reception, in a matter of weeks.

“It’s a tradition for me, ushering at the kick-off Mass,” said Jo Ann DeGuzman, a volunteer from St. Columban Church in L.A.’s Historic Filipinotown. “It’s my third year volunteering here at the cathedral. I like seeing everyone’s handmade parols and how creative people get.”

Scattered among the colorful Filipinana dresses and bright parols, men and women from different religious communities also gathered in joyful celebration of the Lord’s coming.

“It’s an important part of our tradition, and important for the religious to be here representing,” shared Sister Amulita of the Dominican Sisters in Oxnard, who came with her community for the first time to the cathedral.

Amila Ducos, from the secular Institute of Our Lady of the Annunciation, agreed. “I look forward to this event because it is a witnessing of the Filipino people, and their contribution to American culture — making our Filipino values alive and we carry it wherever we go.”

John Paul Simon, one of eight seminarians who traveled from St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, felt blessed to be a sacristan to Archbishop Gomez during the Mass.

“It was a great experience affirming my discernment to the priesthood,” Simon shared. “You really feel the Church here. It’s wonderful to be here, amidst all the political affairs going on ... we’re able to come together as one body of Christ, as a way of uniting in prayer for our nation and motherland.”

Enriching the culture of the Church

Bishop Solis also reflected on the growing Filipino ministry, the second largest after the Hispanic community, in Los Angeles.

“You can see the beautiful traditions of the ministry — reflected in their values, devotions and activities. It showcases the richness of this community being carried into this native land,” he said.

With Simbang Gabi, and other traditional customs (including fiestas honoring Filipino saints Lorenzo Ruiz and Pedro Calungsod, and the Santacruzan pageant parade, honoring the Blessed Mother in May), the contributions of Filipino Catholics to the archdiocese are numerous.

“Filipinos are everywhere — in the choir, as eucharistic ministers, lectors and leadership roles. It’s wonderful to become partners with the mission evangelization,” Bishop Solis said, adding his excitement to be celebrating nine different Simbang Gabi Masses throughout the archdiocese.

“I want to mention the advice and exhortation of our Holy Father: we should not be afraid or embarrassed of our culture and traditions. We should live and share [them] with the greater faith community, because [they] enrich the life of the Church.”

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