December 16 is the official start of the religious celebration of Christmas in the Philippines. It begins with a nine-day novena of Masses in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, called Simbang Gabi or Misa de Gallo in Spanish, meaning Roosters’ Mass. It is so called because church bells start ringing with the crowing of the roosters to awaken parishioners to go to the predawn Masses. It culminates on Christmas eve with the midnight Mass.
This tradition started as far back as the 1500s when Spanish colonizers celebrated Christmas in the Philippines. It was held in the early morn so farmers and fisherfolks could attend before starting work in the fields or seas.
In Greater Vancouver, Catholic Filipinos were introduced to a Filipino Canadian version of Simbang Gabi through the efforts of Sambayanang Pilipino. Filipinos in other major cities of Canada and in the world with large Filipino populations also start Christmas with a nine-day series of masses. Songs in Pilipino and the re-enactment of Joseph and Mary’s trip to Jerusalem otherwise known as “Panunuluyan” is the central theme of the celebration. The Masses heighten the anticipation of the birth of Christ and honor the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Simbang Gabi in Vancouver starts nightly at 7 from December 15 to 23 using Pilipino liturgy but unlike in the Philippines, it does not end on Christmas eve. The Midnight Mass in Canada on December 24 is either in English or French for all Canadians while Simbang Gabi is in Pilipino only.
The first Simbang Gabi in 2017 will be celebrated by Archbishop Michael Miller of the Archdiocese of Vancouver on December 15 at the Holy Rosary Cathedral. Filipino priests and other priests in the cathedral will concelebrate the mass. The encouragement and support of the Archdiocese of Vancouver for this Filipino Christmas tradition is evident with the active participation of the Archbishop as celebrant for the last few years.
The founding of Sambayanang Pilipino
The first Simbang Gabi, celebrated at Corpus Christi Church in Vancouver in December 2001 was a momentous event for Filipinos as it brought back memories of the traditional Christmas Masses in the Philippines. It inspired a group of families and friends to continue the celebration in the coming years and encourage more churches with large Filipino congregations to do the same. A small group of initiators got together one night until the wee hours of the morning in late December 2002 and reflected on the need to form a group that will continue the Simbang Gabi tradition and celebrates the Eucharist in Pilipino. They decided to organize Sambayanang Pilipino.
Sambayanang Pilipino, the Filipino Christian Community in B.C., is a Catholic, lay, non-profit organization headed by volunteer directors under the guidance of Filipino Catholic priests. Its main purpose is to represent the members of the society to the Roman Catholic Church of BC, Canada and the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines relative to the pastoral needs of immigrant Filipinos in the province. It also aims to serve as a facilitating body, in communion with Church authorities, for the celebration of unique, culturally-based worship that is Liturgy in the native Filipino language.
The first mass in Pilipino sponsored by Sambayanang Pilipino was celebrated at St. Jude’s Parish in Vancouver on March 19, 2002. It was officiated by Fr. Amador Abundo, Fr. Justin Trinidad and Fr. Vicente Borre. In December 2002, two sets of Simbang Gabi were celebrated in 19 different parishes in the Lower Mainland.
Since then the society has evolved and was registered on January 28, 2005 under the Non-Profit Society Act of BC to oversee the operation and direction of the society. In March 2009, the Sambayanang Pilipino leaders had an audience with Archbishop Michael Miller to introduce the society and expound on how it is implementing the propositions of the Synod and its other services to the Filipinos in the Archdiocese. Their presentation was well-received and on December 15, 2009, Archbishop Miller and other Filipino priests celebrated the first Simbang Gabi for that year at the Holy Rosary Cathedral. It was a historic event for the Filipino community.
Schedule of Simbang Gabi 2017
From its small beginning in 2001, Simbang Gabi continues through the years. Even non-Filipinos attend the Masses. According to Deacon Greg Barcelon, PhD, coordinator of the Filipino Ministry of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, Sambayanang Pilipino has scheduled Masses in nine different churches each night from December 15 to 23, 2017 in the following parishes:
Dec. 15 -Holy Rosary Cathedral, Vancouver
Dec. 16 - St. Luke’s, Maple Ridge
Dec. 17 - Our Lady of Sorrows, Vancouver
Dec. 18 - Sacred Heart, Ladner
Dec. 19 - St. Jude, Vancouver
Dec.20 - Our Lady of Hungary, Vancouver
Dec. 21 - St. Monica, Richmond
Dec. 22 - St. Paul, Richmond
Dec.23 - .St. Bernadette, Surrey
Nine other parishes now have their own nine-day Simbang Gabi Masses for their congregation from December 15 to 23 in the early mornings and in the evenings.
Early mornings: St. Andrew’s, Vancouver, St. Mary, Vancouver, Our Lady of Mercy, Burnaby, Our Lady of Good Counsel, Surrey, Immaculate Conception, Delta, St. Mary, Chilliwack.
Evenings: Holy Trinity, North Vancouver, St.Patrick, Vancouver, Corpus Christi, Vancouver, St. Matthew, Surrey.
The continued annual celebration of Simbang Gabi in Greater Vancouver is a feather in the cap for Sambayanang Pilipino. It proves that when people come together as a group to advocate for
a great idea, it results in a positive outcome that benefits the whole community. Truly, the yearly celebration of Simbang Gabi in the Archdiocese of Vancouver is a cultural and religious legacy of Sambayanang Pilipino to faith-loving kababayans in BC.