Parishioners were still dusting snow off their jackets as the crowd of about 1,000 filed into the star-studded sanctuary of Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in northwest suburban Inverness on Tuesday.
For more than 86,000 Filipino Catholics in the Chicago area, the joy of Christmas already had begun.
Simbang Gabi (Sim-BONG-guh-bee), a series of nine festive masses leading up to Christmas Eve, culminated with a final service at Holy Family Parish Tuesday night, with Cardinal Francis George presiding.
Gone were the purple vestments and other hallmarks of the church during the Advent season. Instead, priests and some parishioners wore white. Brightly-colored stars iced with tinsel and twinkling with electricity flanked the altar and choirs caroled “Alleluia.”
“You can’t escape the exuberance of Christmas,” said parishioner Almira Gilles of Palatine. “This is a showcase for our tradition, our culture.”
Celebrated in the Philippines at dawn on Christmas Eve, the final mass of Simbang Gabi is often called “Misa de Gallo,” or Mass of the Rooster. Families rise for church at 4 a.m., so fishermen and farmers can be blessed and proceed with their daily chores.
Teresita Nuval, who came to the U.S. in 1969, remembers stories of how her mother awoke to the cadence of wooden shoes outdoors. Growing up in urban Manila, Nuval awoke to the sound of cars. Still, the anticipation was the same.
“When you say Simbang Gabi, you know right away you need to prepare yourself spiritually for the coming of Jesus,” said Nuval, now director for the office of Asian Catholics for the Chicago Archdiocese. “It really is based on the joyful anticipation. Everything emanates from that.”
Symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem is the parol, the Filipino symbol of Christmas, often made from bamboo and colored tissue paper and suspended outside some Filipino homes.
“In the Philippines, when you see a parol that is hung outside a home, that means the family has accepted Jesus,” Nuval said. “It is also telling Joseph and Mary `You are most welcome to come in.'”
In Holy Family, stars shone from every corner. George likened it to evangelization.
“We’ve come on a snowy evening looking for light following a star,” George said in his homily. “God uses stars at times … but most of all God uses others. … God finds others to show us the way to Jesus.”
Chicagoans began celebrating Simbang Gabi in nine parishes in 1986, Nuval said. Since then, the novena has spread to more than 70 parishes in the city and suburbs.