2020 in review: Filipino expats in Dubai to miss traditional Simbang Gabi

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Dubai: The traditional Simbang Gabi will be deeply missed by Catholic Filipinos in Dubai due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There will be no evening masses that attract close to 25,000 people every night for nine days leading to Christmas at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Oud Metha. There will only be virtual Simbang Gabi starting on December 15.

“This is part of our preventive measures against COVID-19,” Filipino priest Fr Chito Bartolo, OFM Cap, told Gulf News. “There will be no in-person Simbang Gabi in Dubai as the Catholic churches remain closed. But St. Mary’s Church and St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Jebel Ali will have a joint online Simbang Gabi beginning on December 15 at 7.45pm,” he added.

Filipino priest Father Chito Bartolo at Simbang Gabi.
Image Credit: Supplied

Simbang Gabi, a Filipino Christmas tradition that began in the late 1600s during the Spanish era, is one of the most awaited gatherings of Filipino Christians every year. It is a devotional nine-day series of Masses traditionally held at dawn. Filipino Catholics brought the tradition to the UAE in the early 2000 and masses were held in the evening. According to Fr Chito, St Mary’s Church in Dubai used to host 25,000 church goers for the 8pm mass and another mass at 4am was introduced few years ago that had at least 5,000 daily attendance.

Community celebration

For the Filipino expat community, Simbang Gabi is not just an expression of faith but also a community celebration ahead of Christmas. There was always a festive atmosphere as masses were held outdoors to accommodate the huge volume of churchgoers who spilt over in and out of the church compound — at the football pitch, basketball court, church patio, and parking lot.

Filipinos of all ages come to hear the mass every year.
Image Credit: Supplied

Filipinos of all ages came to hear the mass — from the elderlies to babies on strollers or carried by their parents. Some came straight from work while friends and families came in groups bringing their own foldable chairs, mats or whatever material they could use to cover the grass turf.

Singing of Christmas carols preceded every mass and traditional Christmas delicacies like puto bumbong (steamed rice pastry) and bibingka (rice cake) were available at the churchyard. Traffic was usually heavy around Oud Metha before and after the mass. People strived to come every night because of the belief that whatever you wished and prayed for would be granted if you finished the nine-day Simbang Gabi.

Different setting, stronger faith

Things will definitely be different this year, according to Fr Chito. “But this is actually the best time for Filipinos to come together and profess their faith, although we are doing masses only online” he noted. “Simbang Gabi binds us together. For Catholics, mass is the highest form of prayer and a community that gathers and prays together is very powerful, especially at this time of pandemic,” he added.

Fr Chito said this year’s Simbang Gabi will centre around the theme, ‘Jesus, Ilaw at Pag-ibig ng Pasko (Jesus, the light and love of Christmas). There will still be the usual programme and singing of Christmas carols before the mass and he encouraged those who will attend to have a solemn environment with phones switched off during the mass. A simple salu-salo (sharing of meals) is also encouraged to be held at each household after the mass.

Simbang Gabi will be streamed live via SMC Filipino Community official Facebook page and more details can be found on St Mary’s Church website.

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Caloy Serrano, church volunteer: “Simbang Gabi is a yearly tradition that we look forward to. As far as I recall, Simbang Gabi was introduced in the UAE by Fr. Ed Dumaual in the early 2000. During those days, we only managed to fill the girls compound of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Nowadays, the numbers of devotees reach over 30,000; the compound is filled to the brim. But with the pandemic still around us, we will be experiencing for the first time a Simbang Gabi online. Sadly, Filipinos will be missing a lot of things associated with the annual night masses but during these trying times, online mass is apt so we can always pray to be healthy and strong to share a lot more holidays in the future.

Art Los Baños, PR professional and socio-civic leader: “The experience being in a sea of humanity will not be present, of course. I hope that the daily online evening mass will attract double the numbers in previous Simbang Gabi as everyone will be at home by then. The virtual celebration of the Holy Mass is also an opportunity for a number of people to finally be able to complete nine nights as the Facebook live-streaming can still be viewed any time. There’s no more excuse this pandemic.”

Jay Fuerzas, 37, from Calbayog, Western Samar: “Simbang Gabi is the most anticipated religious Christmas tradition for me. This is the time when I volunteer to photograph precious moments in the spirit of Christmas and in solidarity with our kababayans (countrymen). I am grateful that a virtual Simbang Gabi will be held this year to reach out to Filipinos here in Dubai and that through this virtual celebration, we will be able to prepare ourselves spiritually in time for Christmas.”

Alfie Gesta, athlete and Dubai resident: “I understand that we really have to adjust to the new normal. Having Simbang Gabi only online is also for our own health and safety as we are still fighting the pandemic. But nothing can take Christmas away from us, we are still going to celebrate it the best way we can. And this is actually the best time we come together and pray for our loved ones, kababayans, the UAE and our own country, the Philippines.”

Omi Villadolid, 42, from Midsayap, Cotabato: “I respect the church decision to have only online Simbang Gabi because we need to adjust and be conscious also of the pandemic. The most important thing is we pray and keep our faith strong.”