December 16 is a highly anticipated day in our family, as well as in other Filipino homes. The Philippines actually starts getting into the Christmas spirit as early as the first day of September, but December 16 officially ushers in the Christmas season, with the celebration of Simbang Gabi, the first of nine-day Novena masses leading up to Christmas Day.
Ever since I could remember, we would get up at early dawn and join our neighbors in walking to church in the cold December air, not wanting to miss the early morning mass.
Simbang Gabi is literally translated “evening mass” because it is traditionally celebrated before the break of dawn (usually at 4 a.m.), which is considerably dark as night. The long-held tradition dates back to the 17th century, when farmers and fishermen asked the church to celebrate early dawn masses, so they can receive God’s blessing before going off to work. Through the years, Filipinos all over the world have adopted the tradition as spiritual preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ on Christmas day.
Most U.S. parishes, however, hold the novena masses in the evenings, starting on Dec. 15 up until Dec. 23, to be more accessible for working church members. Deanery 16 of the Archdiocese of Newark - which includes churches in Belleville, Nutley, Bloomfield and East Orange - observes such schedule.
Now on its eighth year of celebrating the Simbang Gabi as one community, Deanery 16 holds mass at one church per night, with the pilgrims going around the different churches to complete the novena. According to Rev. Fr. Juancho De Leon of St. Valentine’s Church in Bloomfield, the Simbang Gabi has been observed much longer than that but it was only eight years ago that the Deanery had decided to consolidate the holy masses to give the community a chance to gather together and fellowship.
The tradition has also caught the attention of other nationalities, with more non-Filipinos faithfully coming to join the novena each year.
“This is one of the best Filipino traditions,” cites Rev. Fr. Jude Caliba of the Holy Name of Jesus Church in East Orange, “because especially in this country, where people go crazy over buying gifts, decorating and doing other material preparations … they forget that the best preparation really is to prepare ourselves for Christ because Christ is really the reason for Christmas.
“In the Simbang Gabi we are celebrating Jesus’ person: his birth, his life and his mission. And that’s very, very important especially in this country where commercialization abounds. For me, it (Simbang Gabi) is the best because it helps us to prepare ‘the right way’ for Christmas.”
The first mass of Simbang Gabi was held last night at Holy Name of Jesus Church. For those interested in joining the novena masses, the 2011 schedule is as follows:
Dec. 16 – Saint Thomas the Apostle Church, Bloomfield (973-338-9190)
Dec. 17 – St. Mary’s Church, Nutley (973-235-1100)
Dec. 18 – Holy Family Church, Nutley (973-667-0026)
Dec. 19 – Sacred Heart Church, Bloomfield (973-748-1800)
Dec. 20 – St. Valentine’s Church, Bloomfield (973-743-0220)
Dec. 21 – Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, Nutley (973-667-2580)
Dec. 22 – St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, Belleville (973-751-2002)
Dec. 23 – St. Anthony of Padua Church, Belleville (973-481-1991)