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Simbang Gabi

Simbang Gabi

Early on the morning of December 15th, members of the Filipino community of Los Angeles participated in the annual tradition of the Misa de Gallo. I met with Yolanda Ramos of Manila Terrace to discuss the beautiful food and family filled traditions of the holiday season. These are her words.

Just as a general background, the Philippines has been under several rules and so our traditions are somehow and almost bounded by all those influences that have been given by these many peoples who once claimed to be our masters. We have the Spanish rule, and of course that's the reason why we are predominantly a Catholic nation. In Asia, we're the only Catholic country. I believe we're about 90 percent Catholic. So from being Catholic and being Christian, several traditions came out of it.

One of these traditions would be the parole. It's actually Spanish for lantern, the light that leads the way. And it's actually copied after the star of Bethlehem. Because of this you will always see that the parole has five points. And usually the parole was used to light the way of the old Filipinos who would do what we call Simbang Gabi or the Misa de Gallo.

Misa de Gallo when translated means Rooster's Mass. Why is it called the Rooster's Mass? Because it is Mass that begins before dawn. And when people are on their way to Mass, they will always have those lighted lanterns, always in the shape of a star. And that's how the parole came to be. If you see Filipino homes, you'll see the paroles on their homes, on their windows, on their terraces, all over their homes.

The Misa de Gallo is a key part of the Filipino tradition. It begins on the 16th of December and lasts nine days leading up to Christmas. All of this ends with Simbang Gabi, which is Midnight Mass. What they say is if you wish something and you finish the nine days then your wish will come true. I've never done that. I've never finished nine days, so I don't know! My grandma or grandpa would say, "Yes, if you finish!" But of course, we only went to the Simbang Gabi or the Misa de Gallo, not because of the mass, but because of the food.

When you come out from the church, there is what we call "the street food." And the street food during that time would be rice cakes. You buy it and then you go home and have breakfast. And that's your breakfast. And more often than not, we'd go to Mass because of it. Not the essence of the mass, which of course you appreciate when you grow older, but before it was because you wanted to be with friends and because of the food. And the food is special. The bibingka, puta bumbong. So these are the traditions.

On Christmas Eve, we have Noche Buena (Midnight Mass). So we go to the mass, and after the Mass we eat a big feast. Have you seen our roasted pig? Have you tasted our roasted pig? Excellent! So you have that and of course those special rice cakes. These are not everyday fare. You only see them during the season.

The American influence will set in also in the food. You'll see ham starting to become part of the fare at the Noche Buena, and you'll see salad. It's interspersed with the Filipino, the Spanish influence, and the American influence. And then there's the Christmas tree, which is mostly that American influence as well. Stemming from the Spanish and the Catholic influence, you'll also see the belen (the nativity). You will find that in all of the houses and all of the churches of the Philippines, and it will be the main point, that Jesus was born on Christmas night.

It's beautiful! And leading up [to] the holiday you'll also have the Christmas carols. I used to do the Christmas carols when I was younger, even with just a spoon and fork. We'd try and raise money from our neighbors. That was fun for the children. But of course there were also big choirs that would go to all of the houses. Right now I know that there are Christmas caroling contests all over the country.

Family is also a big thing in the Philippines, especially right now when many Filipinos are working out of the country. Christmas becomes a time that everyone goes home. Family is a big thing on Christmas. Being with family. Being together. And doing the traditions. Then on Christmas, you go to the house of your grandmother, and that starts the whole day reunion, from just before lunch, because you wake up late because you had Mass in the evening. You're still full but you still eat. So the whole day you spend with family.

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