Taipei Series: Simbang Gabi

Taking a break from work. I have gazillion things to finish but in the spirit of Christmas, I'd like to pause for a while and remember the reason for the season.

Tonight will be the fourth night of simbang gabi. The nights are getting colder, with rain showers for several days now here in Taipei, but my friends and I all promised to try our best to be there despite the rough weather.

It's the first time that I'm taking part in this Filipino Christmas tradition, and doing it abroad gives me an inspiration and strong will to complete the nine masses. This short feature article I wrote below about our nine morning masses appeared at The China Post last year. I'm re-posting it because what Fr. Nilo said during the interview- about Filipinos being faithful and resilient- remains true and relevant after what the country has been through this year.

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- There are no colorful lanterns lining the streets. No little children going from house to house clutching improvised musical instruments of cans and bottle caps and joyfully singing Christmas carols. Not even boxes of honey-glazed hams and bright red queso de bola. This is Christmas in Taiwan for every Filipino. Although lacking in spirit, homegrown traditions, like the Nine Mornings, play a big part in the Filipino community during this most wonderful time of the year.

Spanish evangelizers brought the Nine Mornings ritual to the Philippines in the early 1500s. The tradition consists of nine daily Novena Masses from Dec. 16 till 24, marking the beginning of the Christmas season for the predominantly Catholic nation. The nine days of Masses resonate with the story of Christmas — the Nativity of Jesus — and prepare people for a meaningful celebration.

Because these Masses are held at the break of dawn, when roosters begin to crow, they are called Misa de Gallo — a Spanish term which literally means rooster's Mass. In the old days, farmers and fishermen rose at dawn to hear Mass before starting the day's work. Today, the tradition has evolved to accommodate more people in church. Filipinos now celebrate this religious event at night; hence the practice becoming popularly known in the Filipino language as Simbang Gabi, or simply, Evening Mass.

The ritual has spread from the Philippines to every corner of the world where Filipinos are present. Fr. Nilo Mantilla, parish priest of St. Christopher's Church, the Catholic Church with the biggest Filipino community in Taipei, shares: “The Nine Mornings are a tradition from Spain, but when it reached the Philippine soil, we cultivated it, added local flavor, and exported it to other countries with the Filipino touch to cater to migrant worker communities.”

In Taipei for example, Filipinos treasure the nine days of Masses, as it provides them comfort from the pangs of nostalgia. For some who cannot make it back home to be with their families, they look forward to going to church on this special occasion. Mantilla explained that Eucharistic celebrations bring overseas Filipinos a sense of home, referring to the social dimension of the tradition. After every Mass, there's a salo-salo, a simple feast prepared for churchgoers so they can spend time together.

This is reminiscent of the usual practice after Mass in the Philippines, with people rushing to food stalls outside churches for seasonal delicacies like puto bumbong (purple-colored glutinous rice cakes topped with shaved coconut) and bibingka (rice cakes smothered with butter and muscovado sugar), which all go well with a mug of hot, chocolatey tsokolate.

Apart from the ritual and its festivities, there is one more reason the Nine Mornings has become more than just a tradition for Filipinos. The faithful say a reward from heaven is given to those who have completed all nine Masses, entitling them to one special wish for the coming year.

Mantilla says Mass-goers have a feeling that their wish will be granted, and that this stems from their faith. To this day, Filipinos still hold on to the centuries-old promise of a wish coming true after giving themselves to God for nine mornings, a clear indication of the depth of their faith.

“Filipinos can still smile amidst all the struggles because we are faithful and resilient. And Christmas is a time for us to be happy because of God, our Savior,” Mantilla concluded.

May this beautiful tradition of Nine Mornings fill our hearts with hope, faith and love as we celebrate the birth of Christ, even without lanterns, Christmas carols or hams. Maligayang Pasko po!

Simbang Gabi (Evening Mass) will be held at St. Christpoher's Church, in Zhongshan North Road Sec. 3, at 8 p.m. from Dec.15 to 23. Christmas Eve Mass will be celebrated at 9 p.m.

Christmas Eve Mass at Holy Family Church in Xinsheng South Road Sec. 2 will be from 10 p.m. Christmas Day Mass will be at 9:30 a.m.

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