ORLANDO | The longstanding Simbang Gabi devotion leading up to Christmas made its debut in seven churches in the Diocese of Orlando in 2005, and today, 18 years later, the 2023 novena of Masses is planned in 32 churches, uniting the central Florida Filipino community in faith and tradition.
“Simbang Gabi is one way of offering love and worship to God and a way to prepare for His birth,” said Mila Ecle, event coordinator for the Filipino Community in the Diocese of Orlando and parishioner of Good Shepherd in Orlando. “My children know the celebration, and I’m trying my best to pass it on and keep the tradition alive.”
Simbang Gabi (pronounced “Sim-bong Gah-bee”) means “night Mass” and consists of a series of nine novena Masses held on the days leading up to Christmas.
In the Orlando diocese, 2023 Simbang Gabi began Dec. 15 in seven host parishes including Annunciation in Altamonte Springs, St. Vincent de Paul in Wildwood, St. Paul in Leesburg, Holy Cross and Holy Family in Orlando, St. Joseph in Winter Haven and St. Thomas Aquinas in St. Cloud. The Masses will conclude Dec. 23 at St. Patrick, Mount Dora, with Bishop John Noonan as main celebrant.
“Simbang Gabi is a special religious practice in the heart of Filipino Catholics,” said Father Nathanael Soliven, parochial vicar of St. James Cathedral serving as priest coordinator of Simbang Gabi. Father Soliven, a native of the Philippines, moved to the United States in 2014. He became a seminarian of the Diocese of Orlando and was ordained May 29, 2021.
“Simbang Gabi brings back a lot of memories from back home because it is such a big religious and cultural tradition for all of us,” he said. “The churches are normally super packed every dawn or night” depending on the parish. … Since it is a novena, normally Filipinos carry an intention with them as they attend Simbang Gabi.”
In the Diocese of Orlando, the novena of Masses first began in 2005 when then-Bishop Thomas Wenski requested Simbang Gabi as a way to unite the Filipino community in faith and also help Filipino families hold onto their beautiful tradition. He celebrated Mass during a bilingual Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Winter Park on Dec. 20 of that year.
“I am very happy to join with the Filipino community as we prepare for the birth of Jesus,” he said during the celebration.
Looking back to the roots of the tradition, some historians trace it to Spanish friars in 1565. The friars’ “Misa de Gallo” or Mass of the roosters was held before dawn, when the roosters began to crow. The early morning Masses allowed the farmers, fishermen and other workers to participate before starting their day’s work.
No matter what time the Masses are planned, Filipinos throughout the world participate with their families and take the celebrations to heart.
“I was born in the Philippines, so I have participated in the novena Masses ever since I was a child,” said Sylvia Taguinod, a parishioner of St. John Vianney in Orlando, who attended nine pre-dawn Masses with her family when she was a youngster.
“Food was mostly my motivation for waking up at 3 a.m. to attend the 4 a.m. Masses, when I was a child, but into my teenage years, the novena started to take on a different meaning.” Her early memories of involved enjoying the Filipino delicacies served during receptions following the Masses. She recalled her change of heart in her teen years when she developed a greater love for what the celebration was truly about.
“I looked forward to the culmination on Christmas Eve when there was a reenactment of the birth of Jesus Christ,” she said. “Christmas has always been a very important celebration for me and my mom, and now with my own family.”
What can one expect from Simbang Gabi 2023? A festive atmosphere, Filipino Advent hymns lifted up by parish choirs and processions with participants dressed in Filipino attire carrying parols or lanterns. The diocese’s 15 Filipino priests including two retired clergy are expected to join the closing Mass with Bishop Noonan.
“Simbang Gabi for me reminds me of the joy and excitement of Christmas,” Father Soliven said. “In the Philippines, with special permission from Rome, white is the liturgical color for Simbang Gabi Masses and the Gloria is sung. The Christmas Simbang Gabi liturgical festivities begin nine days prior to Christmas.
“Whether you are a Filipino or not, it’s a good devotion in anticipation of Jesus’ arrival on Christmas,” said Father Soliven. “It helps us prepare our hearts for Jesus.”
By Linda Reeves, Florida Catholic correspondent, December 20, 2023