Simbang Gabi: Faith, Gratitude, Heritage, and Kapwa Tao
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In the Philippines, it is not unusual to hear Christmas music in the radio airwaves or see some Christmas lanterns hanging by the windows as soon as the first of the “ber” months hits (Yup, as early as September). Christmas is definitely one of the most, if not the most, exciting times in the Philippines. In a country that is over 90% Christian, 81% Catholic, Christmas is undoubtedly a big deal and an extraordinarily festive celebration.
Now, with so many Filipinos spread out in other parts of the world and in parishes throughout the world, the Filipinos’ devotion to this holiday becomes very apparent as December rolls around. Every year, Filipino communities around the world get together for at least one Simbang Gabi Mass celebration during the Advent Season. In the Philippines, Simbang Gabi lasts 9 consecutive days with the 9th day falling on Christmas Eve. In the U.S., some parishes celebrate Simbang Gabi one night a year, although, recently, many parishes are beginning to schedule the 9 consecutive days of Simbang Gabi.
Simbang Gabi is a tradition that is deeply embedded in Filipino culture and history.
It can be traced back to the 16th Century when the Spanish missionaries came to the Philippines and brought Christianity. It was a tradition practiced in Spain and Mexico but it became really popular in the Philippines. It still gets celebrated early in the morning in the Philippines but with the modern economy, Mass times are also beginning to change to accommodate the modern day’s schedules. In the U.S., Simbang Gabi Mass is usually celebrated in the evening and mostly on a weekend to accommodate work schedules, and also, so that the post-celebration feasting and gathering can be extended!
Historically, Simbang Gabi was celebrated before dawn, before the early morning roosters crow. Simbang Gabi is also known as “Misa de Gallo” or, in English, “Mass of the Rooster” because it took place as early as the first rooster’s crows in the early morning. Mass took place as early as 3 in the morning so that the farmers as well as the fishermen could participate before they started their work. It is a novena that starts nine days before Christmas. At the conclusion of this novena is the festive celebration of Noche Buena, which literally means “good night.” Noche Buena is not the same without the sumptuous feast. After completing 9 days of going to Mass so early in the morning, farmers and fishermen, the night of Noche Buena is the opportunity to give thanks to God for a good, bountiful harvest and so to express their gratitude, this is the night when they bring out all the special Filipino dishes like lechon, adobo, pancit, lumpia, fried chicken, bibingka, and quezo de bola to be served to the family, which in the Filipino culture really extends to the larger community including the titos and the titas (uncles and aunties), blood relatives or not, Filipino or not, to join in on a sumptuous feast.
Its vitality continues to flourish in the Philippines.
Check social media during the “ber” months and you will find many posts about Simbang Gabi and how excited people are about it. With the steady stream of Filipinos migrating to different parts of the world, this spiritual tradition continues to spread, grow, evolve, and get passed down to the next generations. The jubilation is so contagious that other Americans are also getting into it. In 1997, the archbishop of Seattle was so moved by his experience of the Simbang Gabi celebration that the Filipino Americans of the archdiocese of Seattle put together, that he encouraged the entire archdiocese to participate. According to a 2014 article on Northwest Catholic, there were about 80 parishes in the Seattle Archdiocese taking part in Simbang Gabi. On December 9th, 2017, the commissioning Mass held at Saint James Cathedral to kick off the year’s Simbang Gabi also celebrated the 20th anniversary of Simbang Gabi celebration in the Archdiocese.
There is something about Simbang Gabi that strengthens and deepens the faith of the Filipino people.
And for Filipinos in the United States, Simbang Gabi not only takes on a different form but it takes on a different meaning. It’s a special time of year for Filipinos to express and share the uniqueness of their faith. There is something about seeing the parols (Christmas star) hanging by the altar, hearing the Filipino choir filling the air with Christmas carols in Tagalog, and then going down to the church basement after the Mass to eat some lumpia and bibingka. Simbang Gabi can be a heartwarming reminder of “home.” There’s something about it that makes the “heart swell with Filipino pride” as Bremerton-based writer Suzanne Goloy-Lanot said in her article.
Ray Almanza, one of the leaders of the Couples for Christ community in the Seattle area, said that, for him, participating in Simbang Gabi is an opportunity “to bring good cheers to others.” It brings people together. It’s really about celebrating the unique heritage of Filipinos and their core value of kapwa tao (shared togetherness). It 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 celebrate and to share God’s bounty with one another — to bring good cheers to their kapwa tao.
Simbang Gabi has evolved over the centuries, particularly as Filipinos continue to migrate to other countries, but its essence remains the same.
It is a celebration that reminds them of the importance of faith, family, community, and tradition, no matter where they are. The effort and time spent on the preparation of the food, the Christmas music, the decorations, etc., present an opportunity to prepare the heart and reflect on what Christmas truly means. Filipinos are a thankful people — it comes from one of the core values of utang na loob (debt of gratitude) — and Simbang Gabi is an opportunity to give thanks to God for blessing them with many things — family, jobs, homes, clothes to wear, food to eat, and, during this time of year, for the blessing of having a community, an “extended family,” 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. There is something special about knowing that Filipinos in Manila, New York, Seattle, Tokyo, Dubai, London, or wherever they are in the diaspora are also celebrating Simbang Gabi. There is a unifying sense of history, heritage, gratitude, faith, and kapwa tao. And 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 they, too, are kapwa tao. Simbang Gabi is a heartwarming reminder of that sense of “shared togetherness.” It is faith-building as well as community-building at its best.
BJ Gonzalvo, PhD, is a psychology researcher, author, and a regular contributor to Mind & Spirit Magazine where he writes about faith and psychology. He is currently researching the topic of what it means to be Filipino and Catholic in America. For more: http://saintlynest.com/bjgonzalvo.php