Simbang Gabi heralds Christmas in Philippine tradition
For many who celebrate Christmas, a favorite part of the holiday is the traditions -- activities that stir memories of childhood and family, that speak of connection to the past and reaching into the future. For Catholics with ties to the Philippines, the novena known as Simbang Gabi continues a centuries-old Christmas tradition.
Simbang Gabi Masses coordinated by the Joliet Diocese begin Wednesday, Dec. 14, with nine days of observances that bring Filipino culture to Catholic services. Masses will be said nightly at two West suburban churches. The Masses are set for 7 p.m. Wednesday at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Darien and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at St. Mary Immaculate Church in Plainfield.
Several Catholic churches grouped in two clusters within the Joliet Diocese will take turns hosting each evening's Mass. The novena takes its name -- Simbang Gabi -- from the Philippine native language, Tagalog.
"It means 'Night Mass,'" said Ditas Alzona, organizer of the special service at Christ the King Catholic Church in Lombard, which will host Simbang Gabi for the eastern cluster on Thursday, Dec. 15. Many people go to Mass on each of the nine nights to complete the novena, she said.
"It's in preparation for Christmas Day, in preparation for the coming of the Lord," she said.
Alzona said the Mass, which includes a children's procession, music and special readings, is similar to those observed in the islands.
"The only difference is the time. Normally, in the Philippines, Simbang Gabi is celebrated at 4 o'clock in the morning because the people are fishermen or farmers," she said. "We have to adjust to the time."
Masses in the diocese are scheduled for as early as 4:30 p.m. and as late as 7:30 p.m.
Lourdes Chew is on the Simbang Gabi committee at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Naperville. St. Thomas is hosting Simbang Gabi Mass at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 17.
"Most Filipinos who have moved here and are Americans now have experienced this as a child. For most of us, we grew up with this tradition," she said. "We're very excited the diocese supports us."
Chew said the tradition is a long held one.
"It started way back in the 1500s," she said. "Back home, it's actually held outdoors. The whole town usually participates in it."
Chew said beautiful rituals are part of the evening services. Star-shaped lanterns, symbolizing the star of Bethlehem, are placed in front of the altar, and the priest wears white vestments.
Some parishioners wear traditional dress, such as the barong, a dressy gown, Alzona said.
"We have some readings that are going to be done in Tagalog," Chew said. "Also, some of the songs are going to be styled in Tagalog. Then also we have a procession with the children participating. We bring an empty manger and a mantle of some candles and flowers. It symbolizes some waiting."
Readings and songs also are delivered in English, said Lori Culberson, liturgy coordinator at St. Thomas.
"They really are trying to mix the two, as far as the languages," she said.
Culberson said St. Thomas has been hosting Simbang Gabi services for 20 years.
"Being Catholic isn't just here in Naperville. Being Catholic isn't just here in the United States. It reminds us how big we are," she said, "and how small we are."
A second collection taken at each Mass will benefit Philippine charities.
Chew said collections taken in churches in the western cluster will benefit the Mountaintop Tribal School Outreach in the Philippines. Eastern cluster churches will donate their second collection to the Compassionate Franciscan Sisters of the Poor, which runs an orphanage and cares for the poor and homeless in Naga City, Philippines, Alzona said.
"After the services, they serve traditional food and everyone's invited. Filipino families are really close, so they're welcoming to everyone," Culberson said.
Alzona said Christ the King will serve noodles and chicken, while Chew said St. Thomas will serve pancit noodles and egg rolls.
All are welcome to attend the Simbang Gabi Masses and the celebrations that follow, both Chew and Alzona said.
"We want to encourage people to bring their friends," Chew said.
The last night of Simbang Gabi, Dec. 22, brings the two clusters together for a 7:30 p.m. Mass in the Cathedral of St. Raymond Nonnatus in Joliet.