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Simbang Gabi the Terre Haute way!

Simbang Gabi decoration: a nativity scene awaiting the arrival of baby Jesus decorated with nine Filipino parols, or star-shaped lanterns, signifying the ninth day of the novena.

Simbang Gabi translates from the Filipino language Tagalog to “Mass at night.” It is the celebration of Christmas throughout the hundreds of cultures and dialects that make up the Philippine islands. It was sometimes called Misa de Gallo or “Mass of the Rooster,” because the Masses were celebrated before the break of dawn, when the rooster crows. The tradition started in the 16th-century. Spanish Friars, in order to accommodate farmers who began work before the sunrise, celebrated this early Mass.

Novena Mass

Simbang Gabi is a novena — nine consecutive days — of daily Mass at 4 a.m. It begins on the 16th of December and ends on the 24th, Christmas Eve. Simbang Gabi is a preparation for the real day of celebration of the nativity of Jesus — Pasko (Pascua de Navidad). The tradition culminates with a midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, the Misa de Aguinaldo (Gift Mass). This Mass is the adoration of the newborn Christ in the manager. What follows is the greatest and most important meal of the year, the time-honored Noche Buena (Midnight Repast). I remember when I went to the Philippines for the first time for Christmas in 2003. I was a young adult and I thought celebrating with families on Christmas afternoon was the most important time to be together. But no, it’s at midnight on Dec. 24th!

Postulant Jessica Vitente, right, with her mother at a Simbang Gabi Mass in 2016 in Los Angeles.

In the U.S.

Over generations, local Filipino-Americans of faith communities have creatively adapted Simbang Gabi as a representation of the immigrant Catholic Church in America. Many urban parishes now celebrate Simbang Gabi in the evening, in addition to the more traditional dawn liturgies, in order to accommodate the needs of people with a great variety of schedules. Many parishes will have a one-day Simbang Gabi celebration and other parishes will have the entire nine-day novena available.

My mom and I were blessed to attend the 14th Annual Simbang Gabi at Our Lady of Angels in downtown Los Angeles on December 15th, 2016 to kick off the novena. There were representatives from 250 parishes who processed down the church aisle. Women dressed in traditional Filipiniana gowns and men dressed in traditional Barong Tagalog, formal dress shirts and held their parish’s respective Parol — star-shaped lantern. Worshippers used the lantern to light their way to church early in the morning and it is a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem.

The feast

After Mass, Filipinos love to celebrate with a big feast that could feed a whole town and have leftover food to take home for future meals in the week. Various foods include pancit (noodles), lumpia (egg rolls), lechon (roasted pig), various sweet sticky rice delicacies such as: bibingka (rice cake), puto bumbong (purple pastry seasoned with grated coconut, rice and sugar) and suman (rice cake) often paired with kape (coffee) or salabat (ginger tea). After a meal, families share their talents for entertainment and there is music and dancing.

Sisters of Providence attending this year’s Terre Haute celebration of Simbang Gabi. From left, Postulant Jessica Vitente and Sisters Paula Damiano, Gill Quigley, Joni Luna, Marsha Speth, Emily TeKolste and Jan Craven.

As a young adult, I remember the first time I went to the Philippines for Christmas (2003). That is when I heard about Simbang Gabi. My cousins invited me to go. I was turned off by waking up at 4 a.m., so I didn’t go. In 2014, for the first time, I completed the nine-day novena by attending the 5 a.m. Masses at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Rowland Heights, California. Some believe that if you complete the nine-day devotion your special petition or wish will be granted. Did I have a wish? Yes, I prayed that were I truly called to be a religious sister, God would show me the path and which community to enter. Since then I have been practicing this novena tradition. Did I yearn for an experience here in Terre Haute? I surely did!

Postulant Jessica, Sister Joni Luna and others join the dancing at the Terre Haute Simbang Gabi celebration this past Saturday

The Terre Haute celebration

My experience of Simbang Gabi at St. Patrick Catholic Church, Terre Haute, Indiana, was very similar; but also unique. It’s the Terre Haute way! I was happy to share the festive tradition with Sisters of Providence and Providence Associates. Sisters Marsha Speth, Jan Craven, Paula Damiano, Joni Luna, Emily TeKolste and Sister Gill Quigley from the Sisters of Providence in England all joined me. Providence Associates Zenaida Contreras and Amy Miranda were also there with their families. There were at least 400 attendees.

It was a festive night full of good food and entertainment across all ages. From children singing and dancing to “baby shark doodoodadoodoodoo” to dancing a modern-style Filipino folk dance, Pandanggo sa Ilaw (Dance of Light,) to teenagers sharing their talents of playing the piano and singing. Even adults performing a line dance with Father Dan Bedel. It wouldn’t be a complete night if guests didn’t utilize the dance floor! Did Sisters of Providence shake bodies to the rhythm of good music? They surely did! My sisters got moves!

Filipinos who believe in fostering family ties and values that serve to strengthen the backbone of the Philippine Society hold these gatherings as sacred. Simbang Gabi expresses the faith of Filipinos who share the same core belief with all Christians, namely, that God resides in human society. It is a great way for children of God from various cultures to come together as one body of the Church.

Maligayang Pasko!!
Merry Christmas!

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Sister Jessica Vitente

Sister Jessica Vitente

Sister Jessica Vitente, a native of Pomona, California, entered the Sisters of Providence in September of 2018. She currently ministers as the Catholic campus minister for the Newman Center serving students at the University of Evansville in Indiana.

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  1. Avatar Denise Wilkinson on December 20, 2018 at 8:29 am

    Jessica – I learned so much from your blog. Thanks for sharing all this with us. Now you’ll have to teach me the pronunciation of those beautiful Filipino words.

  2. Avatar Cathy Campbell on December 20, 2018 at 8:42 am

    Thanks for sharing this tradition and for being with us on the Providence journey, Jesslca.

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