Lighting the way: Children carry paroles, or Christmas lanterns at a Chicago Archdiocese celebration of Simbang Gabi in Glenview. (Courtesy Archdiocese of Chicago)

If it weren’t for the winter weather you might think you were in Manila in the Philippines instead of in Forest Park if you happened to wander into St. Bernardine Catholic Church this Friday evening. Simbang Gabi will be celebrated with the carols at the mass which begins at 7 p.m. all sung in the Tagalog language and the feast following worship in Fearon Hall featuring Filipino food like lechon, pancet, rice, egg rolls, adobo and caldereta.

In the Philippines Simbang Gabi—literally mass at night—is celebrated in church at around 5:00 am on each of the nine days preceding Christmas. “Simbang Gabi,” according to the St. Bernardine Sunday bulletin The Chimes, “expresses the joyful anticipation of the coming of the Savior’s birth. It announces that Christmas is just around the corner and it hopes to offer a deepening of spiritual experience that will lead to a more meaningful Christmas season. In the Philippines, vendors after the mass display a variety of delicacies in the churchyard.” The ninth, or Christmas Eve Mass is affectionately called the “Rooster Mass.” The Archdiocese of Chicago also sponsors a travelling Simban Gabi novena with nine masses celebrated at area churches.

Leonoria Acosta-Fiad immigrated to the U.S. in 1970 and is one of the organizers of the event at St. Bernardine.  She still feels a little homesick during the Simbang Gabi celebration, because at Christmas time her thoughts, like those of many other Americans, turn to childhood memories. She remembers her whole family getting up early in the morning and going to mass for nine days in a row. She remembers the church being decorated with lanterns and flowers and candles. Here it is celebrated on only one day and in the evening because of the climate and differences in people’s schedules.

She said that in the evening the children would also go around the neighborhood singing carols at each house and receiving small gifts of money from her neighbors. “We’d save the money and buy presents for our parents,” she said. “Simbang Gabi is an old custom going back generations, but no one seems to recall what its original meaning was.”

She said that back home on the island of Mindinao, the southernmost island in the Philippines, the choir at mass was composed of children, so they would get the tradition in their bones, so to speak. The children born to Filipino immigrants here in America, however, don’t have those experiences so they don’t appreciate the tradition as much, even though their parents try to pass it on as best they can. 

It’s not just Filipinos who appreciate Simbang Gabi. Ann Stauffer, the parish Director of Religious Education, said, “One of the finest qualities of St. Bernardine’s Parish is the fact that it truly is the best of what it means to be Catholic — universal. St. Bernardine’s is rich in diverse cultures — a welcoming community to all. Every culture brings its own richness and together we form the Body of Christ.”

“As I began my career in church music, and much more since I have lived in Chicago,” said St. Bernardine’s Music Director Joseph Burgio, “I find myself called on to play for services in another language. This is sometimes challenging for me, but I am very pleased to see the Filipinos keeping their culture alive and maintaining a tradition.”

On the mind and in the prayers of everyone attending the Simbang Gabi event will be the victims of Typhoon Haiyan which hit the Philippines last month leaving in its wake 6,000 dead and 700,000 more homeless.

Acosta-Fiad said none in her family there was affected by devastating storm, but that a co-worker of hers at Rush Oak Park Hospital where she works as a med-surgical nurse, was in urgent need of help.

Angelita Ramirez, a member of the Simbang Gabi choir, when asked if she had family members affected by the typhoon, replied, “Fortunately, not anyone of our families were affected. The affected areas are in the southern part of Philippines. It was a total devastation and our contribution is not only monetary but a lot of prayers for the victims as well as the officials who are going to help them rebuild their lives.”