Christmas is the most highly anticipated annual event in the Philippines. In a country that is over 90% Christian (and 80% Catholic), Christmas is an extraordinarily festive celebration. It is typical to hear Christmas music on the radio or see Christmas lanterns (parols) hanging in the windows as soon as the “ber” months hit. Yes, as early as September. That enthusiasm has also made its way to Filipinos around the world and there is no shortage in the joy of wanting to share it with others.
In a small local parish just outside of Seattle, you can hear the Simbang Gabi choir practicing as early as July. This year, this choir practiced every two weeks leading up to the December 2018 commissioning mass at Seattle’s St. James Cathedral. Leading this beautiful chorus of voices and instruments tirelessly for the third year in a row is music director, Lita Consolacion, affectionately called “Auntie Lita.” This choir is no small production. Last year, over 75 singers volunteered from different parishes across the Puget Sound area. While this year’s group is slightly smaller, they are still a mighty bunch. These volunteer singers and musicians are some of the most dedicated and faithful individuals, giving up numerous Sunday afternoons, and even missing Seattle Seahawks games, to ensure they deliver the most joyous Simbang Gabi music. And on December 15th, at the commissioning Mass, after months of practice, they certainly delivered, hitting every note angelically.
Simbang Gabi is a core Christian tradition that is deeply embedded in Filipino culture and history. There is something enthralling about seeing then parols twinkling, hearing the choir sing beautiful Christmas carols, and then following the scent of bibingka (coconut rice cake) down the street after Mass. For Filipinos around the world, Simbang Gabi takes on special meaning. Simbang Gabi is a heartwarming reminder of “home.” There is a sense of nostalgia as they reminisce about waking up before the break of dawn for nine consecutive days to walk down to the church alongside everyone else in the barrio. And for some reason, bibingka tastes so much better during this time of year.
There’s joy and excitement in the air as Filipino Catholics await the coming of Christ with guileless faith. And for Filipinos abroad, there’s also something about the season that makes the “heart swell with Filipino pride” as Bremerton-based writer Suzanne Goloy-Lanot shared in her article. It’s a special time of year to share the uniqueness of the faith and culture.
Ray Almanza, a leader of a large faith community in the Seattle area, said that, to him, participating in Simbang Gabi is an opportunity “to bring good cheer to others.” It’s about celebrating Filipino heritage and kapwa tao (shared humanity or shared togetherness). This is a time when the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the titos and the titas, the manongs and the manangs, the Ilocanos and the Cebuanos, Filipinos and non-Filipinos, gather as one to share God’s bounty with one another—to bring good cheer to their kapwa tao.
For the younger generation of Filipino immigrants, Simbang Gabi is just as special. According to Boston College graduate student, Angelo Jesus Canta–
Simbang Gabi is a way for the children of immigrants “to honor their heritage and to share the richness of Filipino traditions with their new communities.”
The future of Simbang Gabi in America looks bright. In 2016, Seattle University campus minister and doctoral candidate Fr. Frank Savadera, introduced the idea of celebrating Simbang Gabi to Jan Monge, the Cultural Chair for the United Filipino Club on campus. Previous efforts to organize the event were unsuccessful because the actual date of the novena falls on finals week. But that year, Simbang Gabi at SU finally became a reality and has been happening for three years in a row now. Each year, the crowd has grown bigger.
“It’s been a community effort to come together to craft the parols and decorate the Saint Ignatius Chapel narthex. The students together with friends and family also help prepare the Filipino food, which is shared with guests after the Mass,” says Fr. Frank. Just like other Simbang Gabi celebrations across town, a reception is held after Mass with traditional Filipino food, music, and plenty of Christmas spirit. Students prepare and practice for weeks in advance. They volunteer for different roles such as Mass readers, ushers, and even share their musical talents. They collaborate with others community members to create a successful event that is representative of the richness and beauty of the Simbang Gabi tradition.
Keala Marasigan, a recent graduate of Seattle University and Cultural Chair who organized the second annual Simbang Gabi celebration, shared “I felt that continuing the annual event was a great way to not only ring in the Christmas season, but also…show the outer Seattle University/Seattle community a part of the Filipino culture. Growing up, I had very little experience with the Simbang Gabi tradition… It wasn’t until I was older that I learned more about the tradition and the significance behind it. I remember my grandma and mom describing their Simbang Gabi experiences growing up in the Bicol Province.”
The event is usually held near the end of Fall Quarter. For many of the students, the festivities also serve as a sort of end of the quarter celebration. There is a sense of joy, togetherness, and pride as they get to share the richness of their cultural heritage and faith.
Simbang Gabi has evolved over the centuries, particularly as Filipinos continue to migrate to other countries. But its vibrancy and essence remain the same. It reminds us of the importance of faith, family, community, and tradition—no matter where we are. The effort and time spent on the food, music, and decorations present an opportunity to prepare the heart and reflect on what Christmas truly means. Filipinos are a thankful people—this comes fromutang na loob (debt of gratitude). Simbang Gabi is an opportunity to give thanks to God for blessing us with many things: family, jobs, homes, clothes to wear, food to eat, passing the finals exam, and, during this time of year, for the blessing of having a community to gather and eat with. It’s not just the individual’s faith that gets nourished and strengthened during this time of year, but also the collective bond among Filipinos. Some members of the choir drive over 50 miles to both practice singing and experience that bond with their kapwa. There is something special about knowing that Filipinos in Manila, New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Dubai, London, at home, college, or wherever they are in the diaspora are also celebrating Simbang Gabi. There is a unifying sense of history, heritage, faith, and kapwa tao. As the Simbang Gabi tradition spreads throughout the world, the invitation is open to all, including those who are not familiar with this celebration for every child of God is a kapwa tao.
Dominick Do-Tong, a young Vietnamese American college student and dedicated pianist for the Simbang Gabi choir that sang at the Saint James Cathedral Commissioning Mass for the past 2 years, says that he loves the Simbang Gabi tradition. He says that there’s something beautiful about the tradition, the music, and the culture. He sees it as an opportunity for people to have the best experience of Christmas. Having been around the Simbang Gabi choir at his parish, he describes the Filipino community as a dedicated, warm, giving, and fun-loving group of people. As a young adult, he feels hopeful seeing the Simbang Gabi tradition continued by the younger generation and says that he would love to see it passed down to the next generations.
In a time of modernization and increasing indifference, traditions like the Simbang Gabi are what keep us connected to what’s meaningful, to the sacred, to our roots, to our ancestors, and to one another, our kapwa.
About the Author:
BJ Gonzalvo, PhD, is a psychology researcher, consultant, and writer about faith and culture. He is currently collecting and archiving histories, stories, kuwentos, images, narratives, and reflections on what faith means to Filipinos in America today. Visit http://www.saintlynest.com/ to learn more.