Lights stream from the church at La Salette

Lights stream from the church at La Salette

The creche or "belen" at La Salette

The creche or “belen” at La Salette

 

1.000 people at the Rooster Mass

1.000 people at the Rooster Mass

The Altar at Simbang Gabi

The Altar at Simbang Gabi

A little boy by the holy water

A little boy by the holy water

A dog rests under a pew in back

A dog rests under a pew in back

Ate Lumen makes bibingka

Ate Lumen makes bibingka

Two charcoal braziers and a bibingka just cooked

Two charcoal braziers and a bibingka just cooked

Lina likes to say that the Philippines celebrates Christmas longer than any other country, beginning on September 1 and ending on January 6 with Three Kings Day. This four month Christmas season has all the commercial trappings of the holidays in the US, such as ubiquitous Christmas music and malls and special markets full of shoppers. It also maintains its religious core.

For nine nights leading up to Christmas, many Filipinos attend the “misa de gallo” or “rooster mass”, also called “simbang gabi”. This may be at midnight or 4AM, and it happens in all Catholic and some Protestant churches. Lina treasures this time and so, hardly 24 hours after arriving at her home in Silang in the wee hours of Sunday morning, we were walking to the Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette only ten minutes away.

The church doors and the louvered windows that line all sides of the sanctuary were open to the outside so the light and sound of the service streamed out into the dark. A thousand people filled the church, most of them under the age of 20. Groups of teenagers clustered together. Young children sat with their parents or grandparents, and a dog lay under a pew in back. The singing was vigorous, led by a young choir and a guitarist.   The priest gave his homily in Tagalog so I didn’t understand much, but the tone was conversational and energetic.

On our way home we stopped for “bibingka”, a rice pancake cooked in banana leaf over charcoal.   Ate Lumen, the woman who runs the corner store, prepares bibingka each morning of simbang gabi and it is a much anticipated part of the holiday.    Lina and her family would attend each of the nine services and always stop for this specialty of the season on the street as they walked home.

Today is Christmas Eve, the last day of simbang gabi. We went again to La Salette. It was pouring rain, so there may have been “only” 800 people at mass. The priest spoke in his homily about the ”arroz caldo” his mother prepared every Christmas Eve for his family of 10 siblings. Arroz caldo is a thick rice porridge with a hard boiled egg. “If you want to give me a present, just give me arroz caldo”, he said.  It is a humble and filling dish, one that brings the family together at this special time of year. On our way home this morning in the downpour, we warmed ourselves with bowls of arroz caldo cooked by a family along the main road.

Tonight is “noche buena”. Families will prepare food before the evening mass and they will gather for a large meal afterwards. Lina remembers her grandfather, Lolo Santo, reading from the Bible before the meal and asking each member of the family: “What present will you give to God this Christmas?”

What gifts will each of us share with the world in the year to come?

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