Every culture develops special ways for celebrating Christmas. The Christmas crèche, Christmas trees, Christmas carols, and so forth are found in various forms wherever there are Christians. In the Philippines Catholics celebrate the Christmas Novena from December 16 until the Christmas mid-night Mass.
During the novena, church bells ring around 3 a.m. to awaken folks and call them to the Simbang Gabi, or night Mass, at 4:00 a.m.
Churches or chapels are decorated in keeping with the means of the people. Available forms of light—candles or kerosene pressure lanterns in rural areas—illuminate places of worship. Christmas carols and hymns are sung. Priests and ministers vest in white because the Christmas celebration has begun and Advent is over in the eyes of the faithful.
Also called the Misa de Gallo—literally, rooster’s Mass—the celebration of the Christmas Novena is a custom brought by Spanish missionaries and adapted to the life of Filipino people. If you think eight o’clock Mass is too early, try rising for 4:00 a.m. Mass.
Today, the custom may be adapted to a late night vigil Mass—say at 8:30 or 9 p.m.—because urban schedules move in accord with clocks. The “real celebration” has to be around 4 a.m. Bottle rockets and aerial bombs might be used to awaken the area’s residents. After Mass, people drink sweet ginger tea called salabat. Traditional foods after Mass are bibingka and puto, types of cakes made from rice, sugar, and coconut milk.
This past Sunday evening (Dec 14) I celebrated the Sunday liturgy with a large Filipino community. Organized by the Filipino Society of Southern Ohio, we celebrated at St. John Neumann Parish in a northern suburb. Here in the Cincinnati area there are many Filipinos. They have adopted the U.S.A. as their new homeland, but they also love to celebrate the Filipino Simbang Gabi on at least one Sunday during Advent, even if it is before the day when the Christmas Novena begins on December 16.
At this year’s Mass about fifty youngsters (from pre-school to high school) led the entrance procession. All wore formal Filipino garb. They carried Christmas lanterns in the shape of colorful stars assembled by local families for the occasion. The choir sang and led congregational singing of beautiful liturgical music, English and Filipino traditional hymns.
After the Eucharist and a festive meal with homemade Filipino foods, the youngsters performed a variety of Filipino dances and songs which had been carefully rehearsed over the past months. The adult choir and the cultural dances brought great joy to the celebration. Watching the variety of beautifully choreographed performances was a treat for a priest who lived for years in the Philippines.
Praying with this Filipino community was an inspiring liturgical celebration.
I think it embodies what Pope Francis calls “The Joy of the Gospel.”