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Saturday, December 24, 2011

5 a.m. Filipino Christmas

[Editor's note: This was written on Dec. 24, 2011]

For weeks during Advent I haven't been in the Christmas spirit.  A lot of it has to do with the weather feeling more like May than December (thank you El Niño), but part of it has been realizing I haven't really been preparing myself for the coming of baby Jesus and his birth.  So last Sunday I prayed at Mass, "OK, God, I want to take this last week to really (i.e. actually) prepare for you, to make this week before Christmas about You."

At the end of Mass, I took out the bulletin and I read this: "It's not too late to come and join the wonderful Christmas tradition of Simbang Gabi/Misa Del Gallo novena Masses through December 24th . . .see why people have been waking up on cold December mornings to come to Mass at 5 a.m. This is a 400-year old tradition from the Philippines..."

Wow God, I've been praying for something to do this week, it's at my parish St. Charles Borremeo, and it's Filipino?  Like my roots?  I couldn't tell you what Simbang Gabi means or even how to pronounce it correctly in Tagalog, but God, could you throw me a bigger sign?


5 a.m. ---an (un)Godly hour
Monday morning my CD alarm came on at 4:30 a.m. with a man singing, "No me digas que nooo...que no me quiere!"  No, I will tell you, I don't want you, I think in my head as I get up almost regretting that I had decided to do this Mass thing.  I call my best friend Anthony who is getting up for work up in Massachusetts.
"I don't wanna!"
"Ha, have a good day bro."
"Yeah, see ya."
I told Anthony the night before that I needed accountability to do this or I probably wouldn't follow through so I asked if I could call him in the morning for five seconds, and if I didn't he'd know why.

After a quick face rinsing, teeth brushing, and clothes dressing, I step outside.  It's freezing!  What?  It's never this cold...I walk begrudgingly to my car and think back at the bulletin, "see why people wake up in cold December mornings...a 400-year Philippine tradition..."  No!  Waking up to cold December mornings is not a 400-year tradition!  It's nice this time of year in the Philippines!  In fact, I bet the Filipinos got up so early around this time because they found it was so nice and pleasant outside.  It wasn't see-your-own-breath-gloves-and-scarves-turn-up-the-heat-in-your-car kind of weather.

As I drive to St. Charles I wonder how many people are actually going to be at this thing.  From my Catholic experiences, it had a recipe for small numbers. 1.) It was a weekday Mass 2.) It was in the morning (5 a.m. at that) and oh yeah, it's geared towards a specific demographic---Filipinos.  Prediction: I bet I might see just a dozen or so silver-haired Lolos and Lolas.

I park, walk in, and couldn't believe what I saw.  At least a hundred to a hundred fifty people were spread out among the pews making it seem at least two-thirds of the room was filled.  What?  Where am I?  Is it not 5 o'clock in the morning?  Where did all these Filipinos come from?  Not only did were there old Lolos and Lolas (whom, by the way, looked like they really got up this morning with a shower and carefully-picked matching Mass attire) but people my parents age, young couples, and even a sprinkle of some white people (what's up white people!).

This was the scene at the 5....a.m.
Joy came over me.   This is Filipino. This is Christmas.  This is Spirit.   I laughed to myself throughout Mass as I still stumble with the new Roman Missal ("And also with, I mean, and with your Spirit---dangit") and the songs in Tagalog with lyrics I didn't understand and knew less on how to pronounce (I mean, how would you sing the word, nagispaghandog, which, according to my dad, means "gift offering" in Tagalog, if anyone was wondering.)

After Mass, to my surprise, there was a Filipino breakfast buffet.  If anyone knows how much I love (and eat) food, they know I was in Filipino heaven.  That morning (and the mornings after) I ate like a king having foods from my childhood that I haven't had in forever...pancit palabok, arroz caldoo, sotanghon soup....I felt like the Prodigal Son coming home to a (Filipino) feast.

A Filipina Tita greeted me, "Hi, are you new?"  "Yeah, I kind of just moved here to Arlington."  She introduced me to her twin daughters who are also 24 and also don't speak Tagalog.  Yes!  Solidarity!  We became friends, (made it Facebook official that night) and they in return saved me a seat at breakfast each morning afterwards.  It's those two I owe for giving me the idea of the cutout cross in the Spam for my blog when I told them that I would be naming it "Catholic Fried Rice."

After going to each 5 a.m. Mass this week ending today on Christmas Eve, I want to end with two thoughts.  The other week I wrote a post about how we Catholics need to do a better job creating community, and how there's hope if we each step up.  But after seeing the hundreds that came to each Mass this week and shared breakfast, and seeing the many who carried joyous dedication in spite (or maybe because) of the tragic deaths due to the storms in the Philippines, I realize Catholic community that I dreamed of already exists.  I could take a page from my fellow Filipinos and see that Church community happens when people stick around and be with each other, share a story, share a laugh.  It doesn't hurt when there's hot Filipino food there either.

Lastly, I can't begin to tell you what this week means personally for me and who I am.  In my twenty-four years of life, I have come to know that I am wholly Catholic.  Junior year of college I realized that I am a whole man, a guy who in God's eyes, has what it takes.  But until this week, I wasn't sure if I was wholly Filipino.  I mean, I don't speak Tagalog, my white friends to Filipino friends ratio is probably 20-1, and I've always felt in the back of my head that I would have to marry a Filipina if I want to pass down Philippine traditions to my future children.

Until a couple years ago, I used to think I would have to marry someone who prays more than I do because I would need my wife to be the Catholic leader of my family.  God made me realize that I need to be able to be the spiritual leader of the household among other things, and not just depend on my spouse to be the one to tell us that we should pray or go to church.  After I found this out, I upped my game in my own prayer life, working out my spiritual-gym, knowing I need to be strong one day.  Likewise, I realized in prayer this week that if I want Filipino traditions in my family, I the Filipino, should be able to do pass it down on my own.  I was particularly inspired by some of the white spouses I saw this week who took part of his/her husband's/wife's ethnic tradition.  I too should be able to lead my wife and family one day to these things were I to have hybrid beautiful children.

God told me in prayer, "You are a man, you are Catholic, you are Filipino.  And you're meant to be a leader in all three."

Thank You God.  For the Masses this week, for my identity.  And for the hot santanhon soup.



  1. Great article! I agree that Simbang Gabi is a wonderful Filipino tradition. Those back in PI have no idea what we go through -- the cold air, rather. -- Iva

  2. Haha, right? Thanks for being part of that experience for me!