When the soft glow of the parol, or Filipino star lantern, begins to light the dark Alaskan night, 13-year-old Robin Jones begins to feel anticipation and excitement for Christmas. Jones’ Filipino family hangs the star outside their home each year in honor of Simbang Gabi, a special novena celebrated in the Philippines.
“My dad hangs it outside with the rest of our Christmas decorations,” Jones said. “(The parol) is similar to the lanterns that they use at church for Simbang Gabi, and I always get excited when we hang it up!”
Jones’ family, along with hundreds of other Alaskans, celebrates the special Filipino novena of Simbang Gabi each year to help prepare for Christmas.
“It’s a tradition that is hundreds of years old,” Jones explained. “We’ve been celebrating it every year for as long as I remember, and I look forward to it every year.”
Novena rich in tradition
The tradition of Simbang Gabi dates to the 1600s.
According to the Archdiocese of Manila, Simbang Gabi traces its origins to Mexico, to a monastic monk by the name of Fray Diego de Soria. He is said to have received Vatican permission to hold an outdoor Mass at dawn for Christmas, to accommodate all the people. It evolved into the novena tradition of holding an early morning Mass on each of the nine days before Christmas.
According to local Filipino priest Father Ben Torreto, on loan to the Archdiocese of Anchorage from the Diocese of Cotabato City in the Philippines, these Masses were called the “Misa de Gallo,” Spanish for “Mass at the rooster call.” Having Mass at such an early time in the morning helped people embrace the penitential spirit of Advent, he explained.
“Going to Mass at dawn is a sacrifice,” Father Torreto said. “Since you have to wake up at early dawn, which is not a normal time for waking up for many, it becomes a sacrifice.”
Spain brought the tradition of novenas to the Filipinos, who embraced the practice and have been celebrating it ever since.
“It is a part of our religious tradition,” Father Torreto explained. “It has been handed down from generation to generation.”
Before the novena, the faithful typically offer up particular intentions that they will pray for during the novena, Father Torreto explained. The prayers and sacrifices also help focus on the true meaning and spirit of Christmas, he added.
“Simbang Gabi is an Advent preparation to make ourselves worthy of the birth of our savior, Jesus Christ,” he said. “Thus, whatever sacrifices and prayers we do must bring us closer to the birth of Christ.
Passing on tradition
Because dawn comes so late in the day in Alaska, Filipinos and other Catholics in the Archdiocese celebrate Simbang Gabi in the evening, at various churches around Anchorage.
“At each church during the Masses we have the parols, or electric star lamps which resemble the star that the three wise men followed,” Jones explained.
After each Mass, participants gather to share traditional food from the Philippines.
“A lot of young people go to Simbang Gabi,” Jones said. She added that she likes the fact that youth participate in the novena, because it is also a way to preserve Filipino culture.
“A lot of young people from the Philippines are Americanized,” she said. “So this is important because it allows young people to go back to traditions.”
Father Torreto agreed with Jones, but was quick to add that all Alaskans, not just Filipinos, are invited to participate in Simbang Gabi.
“We are hoping that this Filipino religious tradition will promote an appreciation among Alaskans that even though we are not in the Philippines … we keep our religious traditions,” he said and, “We are all in this Advent season, joyfully awaiting the birth of our Savior.”
To that end, Father Torreto encourages all Catholics to participate in the novena. He pointed out that the Mass is celebrated in English.
Jones also encouraged participation in the nine days of Masses and festivities.
“I think this tradition will grow. I think it will become bigger and bigger,” she said. “I definitely want to celebrate it and continue to pass it along.”
This year, the tradition will start on Dec. 15, with Mass at Holy Family Cathedral at 6 p.m. Throughout the nine days, Masses will rotate throughout the parishes in the Anchorage bowl, concluding with a special Mass at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson on Dec. 23.
Father Jaime Mencias will hold a special novena for those who live in the Mat-Su Valley.
Printed with permission from Catholicanchor.org.