Combined cultural celebration anticipates the joy of Christmas

Dec 20, 2023
Parishioners at Holy Cross Parish gather to sing, play instruments, and dance as they celebrate different Hispanic traditions including “parranderas,” leading to Christmas Day (COURTESY).

ORLANDO | Whether Puerto Rican, Colombian, Filipino, Venezuelan, Ecuadorian, Anglo or from many other cultural backgrounds, you can find a familiar holiday tradition at Holy Cross Parish in Orlando. For more than 10 years, the multicultural parish has combined customs into one celebration, welcoming the whole community.

“It’s a powerful celebration, embedded in each country’s tradition,” explained Father Esaú García, pastor. “All the ministries of the parish help make it happen and it is open to all.”

The first portion is the Misa de Aguinaldo or Misa de Gallo, a tradition from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Bolivia. In the Philippines it is known as Simbang Gabi. No matter where it is celebrated, it has certain elements in common: a series of Masses celebrated beginning nine days before Christmas. In contrast to the usual penitential atmosphere of Advent, the Misa de Aguinaldo is focused on the joy and anticipation of Jesus’ arrival. The Masses have even been granted a special dispensation from the Vatican to allow for white vestments and the singing of the Gloria.

 Father Esaú García, pastor participates in Misa de Aguinaldo.

“These Masses are traditionally celebrated at five in the morning,” Father García said. “But this year at Holy Cross we will celebrate in the evening so children and more people can attend.”

Following the Misa de Aguinaldo, novena prayers are said. Sometimes called the novena de aguinaldo, or the “novena to the baby Jesus,” these prayers come from a Colombian and Ecuadorian tradition dating back to the mid-1700s. Each day there is a prayer to God the Father, the consideration for the day, the prayer to the Blessed Virgin and the prayer to Saint Joseph. The novena ends with Los Gozos (the joys), prayers sung for the coming of the Christ child.

After the novena, the celebration moves outdoors for “el compartir” (sharing of food) and villancicos — a Venezuelan tradition. It includes carols sung during Advent that relate to Christmas themes beginning with the promise of the Messiah in the Old Testament, to the Annunciation, Visitation, and birth of Jesus. Villancicos are similar to parranderas or posadas from Central America and Mexico, where people travel from house to house singing songs and playing instruments. At Holy Cross, a band will play and the people sing and dance while enjoying snacks and hot chocolate. A
different ministry of the parish will host el compartir each night, bringing different traditional foods to share. It is a multilingual event with songs sung in Spanish, English and Tagalog.

“Because there are so many people of different nationalities at Holy Cross, this melding of traditions welcomes each of these,” explained Kelvis Espinoza, a member of the music ministry. “Roughly 500 people attend each night of the novena with the exception of Sundays when there are about 2,000. On Saturday and Sunday it is huge. Such a joyful gathering.”

When growing up in Venezuela, Espinoza recalled participating in the celebration of Misa de Aguinaldo with his family in the morning followed by el compartir. Then, in the evening, they would join the Colombian community for the novena, each night celebrated at a different house and accompanied by villancicos.

“It could be a long day,” Espinoza said with a laugh. “It is tradition. Everyone goes, grandma, visiting family, even those who never go to church.”

Now he goes with his wife, Roxana. She directs the novena, selecting the adults and children who will read the prayers. The novena is prayed in English and Spanish due to the diverse communities and English-speaking guests. Each
year, it is an opportunity to revisit familiar Advent traditions while being enriched by the traditions of others.

Misa de Aguinaldo celebrations will take place at Holy Cross Parish from Dec. 16 to 23, 2023, 7 p.m.

By Elizabeth Wilson, Special to the Florida Catholic, December 20, 2023