Filipino Catholics will gather for Christmas celebrations

Organizers for Simbang Gabi include Dr. Maya Lopez of Christ the King Church (left), Lilian Felicitas and Carlita Baquial of Our Lady of Good Counsel and Father Joseph Chan of the Cathedral of St.Andrew.
Organizers for Simbang Gabi include Dr. Maya Lopez of Christ the King Church (left), Lilian Felicitas and Carlita Baquial of Our Lady of Good Counsel and Father Joseph Chan of the Cathedral of St.Andrew.

Filipino Catholics in central Arkansas are preparing for the second annual observance of Simbang Gabi, a traditional Christmas celebration.

“When you talk to Filipinos, Simbang Gabi brings up a lot of energy and excitement for Christmas,” said Dr. Maya Lopez, a parishioner at Christ the King Church in Little Rock and one of the event’s organizers. “There’s all of these memories that we have of a very festive occasion, which is very fitting for what’s going to happen, which is the birth of Jesus.”

This is the second major Filipino event this year, the first being a special Mass in September honoring the Philippines’ patron saints, 17th century martyrs St. Lorenzo Ruiz and St. Pedro Calungsod. That event drew a standing-room-only crowd from as far away as Tulsa. Organizers are hoping the response to that event is a harbinger for things to come during the runup to Christmas.

“We tried to involve different parishes (last year) but we really just did it in a chapel last year. There were like, maybe, 30 people,” Lopez said. “This year, after the huge response we got from the (saints) Mass, we’re hoping that we’ll get a huge response again this time.”

Simbang Gabi (pronounced simBAHNG GAbee) dates back hundreds of years to when the Philippines were under Spanish rule. Catholic friars introduced the tradition as a means for allowing poor farmers a chance to attend Mass before heading out into the fields. The event is marked by nine days of Mass at dawn; church bells begin ringing as early as 3 a.m. to summon worshipers to what is also known by its Spanish name, Miso de Gallo or “Mass of the Rooster.”

“We have a lot of Catholic churches in the Philippines and they are all packed for all nine days,” said Carlita Baquial, another organizer and member of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Little Rock. “Everyone goes; it’s a very popular tradition.”

Because of the early hour, street vendors typically line the avenue leading to the church door, ready to wait on hungry churchgoers exiting Mass. Lopez recalled picking out treats from the food stalls selling puto (rice cakes), pandesal (hot breakfast rolls) and other delicacies along with coffee and tea as among her fondest memories of Simbang Gabi during her youth.

“When I think about my experience, we would wake up at 3 a.m.,” Lopez said. “We had the youth choir in our neighborhood and the leader would walk along the street with his big jukebox blaring and everyone’s waking up and it’s colder than usual in the Philippines and everyone’s excited.”

“It’s very unusual for Filipinos to leave the house without taking a shower, but you put on whatever and all the stragglers will come in and everybody’s like ‘Oh, you didn’t wake up early enough.’ It’s very festive.”

The organizers are quick to point out that the Arkansas version of Simbang Gabi will be Americanized, that is, evening Mass instead of the crack-of-dawn variety. Each night will feature a rosary, exposition and Mass with traditional Filipino food and beverages afterward.

Father Joseph Chan, associate pastor of the hosting Cathedral of St. Andrew, said celebrating cultural traditions are a means of growing closer to one another as well as closer to God.

“It unites people,” he said. “I think part of our mission is that someone looking at the Philippines might say ‘Well, you’re Filipino.” But each island speaks a different dialect and I can speak in my island language and you wouldn’t understand me, yet we’re both from the Philippines.”

“Even here in the United States, there are those who came here because of their professions, some because of inter-marriages, some because they served in the military. This shows that it’s really faith that unites people. It brings us together.”

The Simbang Gabi celebrations begin Saturday, Dec. 15 and continue through Dec. 23. Saturday, Dec. 15 and 22 Mass starts at 4:30 p.m. followed by rosary/exposition at 5:30 p.m. On Sunday, Dec. 16 and 23, Mass begins at 5:30 p.m., followed by rosary/exposition at 6:30 p.m. The weekday dates (Dec. 17 to 21) begin with rosary/exposition at 6 p.m., followed by Mass at 6:30 p.m. All events will be held at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in downtown Little Rock.

Dwain Hebda

You can see Dwain Hebda’s byline in Arkansas Catholic and dozens of other online and print publications. He attends Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock.

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