Fr Leonard E Dollentas
Christmas is one of the most anticipated celebrations for Filipinos. As early as September, most Filipinos are already preparing for Christmas hangouts and parties. But to witness such Christmas fervor this early outside of the Philippines is a little surprising for many. Since September, people passing by the Cartorio office, were astonished to hear Christmas songs from the basement. Those sweet voices are coming from the Nativity Choir, a group composed of young Filipinos rendering choir services at 6.30 pm mass at the Macau Cathedral on Sundays.
As early as September, the choir had started practicing for the Cathedral English community Simbang Gabi Mass in December. Simbang Gabi (Night Mass) is a devotional nine-day series of Masses practiced by Filipino Catholics in anticipation of Christmas.
Mr. Reiner Tom Banta, the Nativity choir director said that the Nativity choir members are mostly migrant workers who dedicate their gift of singing to the ministry of music in the cathedral. They have volunteered many of their Sunday afternoons to practice and to make sure that they will be able to bring the best and joyous Simbang Gabi songs to the English speaking community in the Cathedral, Mr Banta added. The choir is composed of 19 members, with Garry Maceda Calderon as the head instrumentalist.
Traditionally, Simbang Gabi is celebrated in the Philippines as early as the first rooster crows so that the farmers and the fishermen could join in the Masses before they started their work. It still gets celebrated early in the morning in the Philippines, now accommodating the modern economy workers in off-shore call centers working overnight shifts.
As an increasing number of Filipinos now migrates to other countries for much wider work opportunities, Simbang-Gabi has found its way back to the Americas since it made its way from Mexico to Philippines around 500 years ago.
In Macau, Simbang Gabi Mass goers are on the increase each year, but they are usually celebrated in the evening and mostly to accommodate the work schedules and way of life of the Filipino migrants. The Filipino Pastoral community at St. Augustine Church and the English communities of Our Lady of Fatima and the Cathedral celebrate Simbang Gabi as well.
There is something about seeing the parols (Christmas lantern) hanging by the altar, the choir filling the air with Christmas carols in Tagalog. In some communities with a thriving Filipino community, the air is filled with the aroma of bibingka (rice cake) , lumpia (spring rolls), and dinuguan with puto (pork blood stew with native rice cake) coming from the parish hall. Simbang Gabi is a heartwarming reminder of home. There is a sense of connectedness knowing that their families back home and their fellow Filipinos around the world celebrate the joy of Christmas in the same way.
This year the Cathedral Nativity Choir wanted to give church goers not only a glimpse of the most cherished Simbang Gabi tradition of the Filipinos. They prepared songs to give hope to everyone, a hope that the glum night of COVID 19 is coming to an end, a hope not for everyone to become complacent, but still vigilant. One priest said that he looks forward to the day when he can say: “The mask is ended. Let us go in peace.”