Every New Yorker is familiar with the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. But you’d probably be hard-pressed to find many who have heard of Simbang Gabi, a nine-day series of Catholic masses leading up to Christmas Eve.
To locals like AJ Lavilla, who migrated to Queens from the Philippines as a kid, the season wouldn’t be the same without the popular Filipino tradition.
“Oh, man, those are the happiest holidays,” said Lavilla, a Queens-based street artist. “I moved here when I was 13, so I vividly remember everything: The fireworks, the food, the going to church. In Ilo Ilo, we eat the bibingka," he added, referring to a rice cake infused with essences of banana leaf and coconut.
Simbang Gabi dates back to the late 1600s, when the Philippines were under Spanish colonial rule. In New York City, which boasts one the largest Filipino populations in the U.S., a growing generation of Filipino Americans is breathing new life into the centuries-old Advent celebration.
Last weekend, Joey Golja and his friends transformed a spacious Bushwick warehouse into a Filipino winter spectacle. Decked out with more than 200 flickering parol lanterns, the space became home to a slate of artisans, chefs and DJs adding their modern flair.
“This is pretty much our twist on what our parents did,” said Golja, who co-founded Project Barkada, a nonprofit focused on elevating Filipino American culture.
As folks trickled in, vendors served fresh plates of crispy, tender lechon, sweet Filipino bites like biko and cassava, and many samplings of Kasama rum.
Augelyn Francisco, owner of the Lower East Side Filipino cafe Kabisera, says it’s important for both the old and the new to coexist.
“There is a special space in every Filipino in their heart when it comes to Simbang Gabi,” Francisco said. “I don’t think we are really forgetting the old tradition. It’s just a revision of how we are now, and what the world [is].”
A celebration that emerged from oppressive history
Simbang Gabi, which translates to “night Mass” in Tagalog, began at a time when Spanish priests hungry to evangelize the Philippines arranged to celebrate morning Masses as early as 3 a.m. for farmers, before they headed off to work long hours in the fields.
Under Spanish colonialism, many important Filipino traditions were erased. Animism and other indigenous religions disappeared, Baybayin script was replaced with the Latin alphabet and local shamans were dethroned by Catholic priests.
Even after the Philippines declared independence from Spain in 1898, and again from the U.S. in 1946, the church’s footprint only expanded. Today, the Catholic Church has materialized as a symbol of Filipino nationalism. Nearly 80% of the population is Catholic.
For devout churchgoers like Nicky Torres, the inclusive essence of Simbang Gabi is what matters most.
“Simbang Gabi is really, for me, a unifying event,” said Torres, a manager at Bellevue Hospital and a parishioner of St. Sebastian Church for over 20 years.
On Saturday evening in Woodside, Queens, Torres and roughly 200 fellow congregants filled the pews of St. Sebastian on the third night of the nine-day celebration. A single white parol lantern hung by the Nativity scene and altar, where a priest delivered the evening’s gospel to churchgoers. The modest scene marked a stark contrast to the warehouse fiesta, yet both felt like long-awaited family reunions.
“It’s not only a Filipino tradition, but I think it’s more of a cohesion of the spiritual beliefs that we have as Catholics — not only in the Philippines, but all over the world,” stated Torres.
Honoring the past and present
Finding a deeper meaning in Simbang Gabi, despite its colonial origins, is a sentiment shared by many Filipino Americans. Other Filipino Americans who spoke to Gothamist at both events expressed how Simbang Gabi is a window into shared Filipino values, like family and heartwarming connections.
In planning the Bushwick warehouse event held on Friday, Golja and his team focused on capturing the spirit of Simbang Gabi while giving it a creative spin.
Taipan Lucero was among the participants at the weekend fiesta who’s using art to reconcile his homeland’s past and present. A traditional Filipino calligrapher, Lucero revives pre-colonial scripts such as Baybayin into fine art paintings.
“I want to communicate to the world how beautiful our culture is, to show that our ancestors [were] literate, and we had a thriving civilization before any colonizers came,” he said.
The fiesta offers a glimmer of hope that a new generation of Filipino Americans will continue to keep these traditions alive. Francisco agrees, asserting that the magic of Simbang Gabi is in no danger of disappearing.
“I can’t say that we’ll be doing what they did 30 years ago, 300 years,” she said, “but we’re living into that spirit. The intention is the same.”
Catch some of the city's final Simbang Gabi events on Friday, Dec. 23. Kabisera will host a Maligayang Pasko holiday pop-up from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. at its flagship location (151 Allen St.), and St. Sebastian Church (58-02 Roosevelt Ave.) will host its Eucharistic Celebration at 7 p.m.