Filipino Christmas tradition lives on

by Violi Calvert and Marilie Eftekharhashtroudi

As part of Christmas celebration, Filipinos all over the world attend nine-day devotional masses leading to the birth of the baby Jesus on Christmas Day. This unique Filipino tradition which is referred to as “Simbang Gabi” [night masses] stems back to the Spanish regime in the Philippines.

The Spanish priests celebrated masses at early dawn for the devout Faithful before the farmers and their families set out to work in the rice fields and plantations. After the masses, the worshippers enjoyed sharing “puto bumbong” and “bibingka” which are rice delicacies and fragrant herbal tea; these are cooked at the stalls outside the church grounds.

Simbang Gabi has since remained a feature of the Filipinos’ celebration of Christmas, including by those who live and work outside the Philippines. Despite the difficulties associated with making arrangements to take young children to the masses and afterwards taking them to schools [or day care for the young ones] and going to work, the Filipinos have steadfastly clung to this tradition.

In the Blacktown area alone, there are three parishes which have celebrated Simbang Gabi for years.

St. Aidans Catholic Church, Rooty Hill, 4:30 AM [in English]
St. Michael Catholic Church, South Blacktown, 4:30 AM [in Filipino]
Blessed John XXIII Catholic Church, Stanhope, 6:00 AM [in English]

Demonstrating a stronger support and further disproving the rumoured discontinuation of the Filipino Chaplaincy, Bishop Anthony Fisher of the Diocese of Parramatta, headed the celebration of the mass at Saint Michael’s Catholic Church on 24 December 2012. In his talk, Bishop Fisher highlighted the importance of Simbang Gabi in the lives of Filipinos wherever they are.

At St Aidan’s on the other hand, well-known priest and first Filipino Chaplain Fr Renato Paras, who has retired a couple of years ago, headed the celebration. One of the devoted servers in the masses at St Aidan’s is Obet Dionisio. Obet commented : ” I thank God for giving me the strength to continue my devotion of serving in the mass during the Simbang Gabi for more than twenty years now. I thank God for giving me the will to wake up every morning at around 2:30 AM, to be at the church early in preparing all the things needed for the mass for the 4:30 AM mass. Having accomplished my devotion, it lifts my spirit every Christmas and praying that I will continually be blessed to have a good health to continue serving God and the Filipino Community.”

With Filipinos like Obet and dedicated Filipino Chaplaincy, this unique Filipino Christmas tradition will live on. The Filipino Chaplaincy presently consists of Father Ranilo “Raning” Creta as the Chaplain, with the half a dozen of priests like father Filipino Ruben Elago (just recently arrived from New Zealand), Father Larry Tolentino, Fr. Roy Cabradilla who is the Assistant Parish Priest of St. Aidans and also a Filipino Father, John Watkins while the unordained priests or deacons like John Paul Escala who will be ordained this year.

***Photos by Marilie Eftekharhashtroudi***

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