Simbang Gabi in Sharjah, in Dubai

From 15th til 24th of December expect St. Mary's in Dubai, St. Michael's in Sharjah, St. Francis' in Jebel Ali, and other parishes across the Emirates to be heavily jampacked at night - inside and out. This 9-day series before Christmas is when the Filipino Catholic community observes the traditional Simbang Gabi or night (or dawn) mass.  Simbang Gabi is a devotional novena in anticipation of Christmas. Many believe that this is a sacred period to prepare ourselves to feel and fulfill the true spirit of Christmas.

This tradition originated in the early days of Spanish rule as a practical compromise for farmers who started their day before sunrise to avoid the heat in the fields. Priests began to say Mass in the early mornings instead of the evening novenas more common in the rest of the Hispanic world. This cherished Christmas custom eventually became a distinct feature of Philippine culture and is a symbol of sharing.

Aside from the spiritual preparation, many believes that whoever completes the 9-day novena will have his special wishes granted, prayers answered. For me, it's not (only) about wishes and answers... It's more about preparation of the heart and soul to better understand His presence on us, how He works on our lives, how God eventually responds to our prayers and desires. He hears us, but we have to hear ourselves as well.  Simbang Gabi is the best time to reflect what His birth on Earth means to us.

Back home, Simbang Gabi is held before the sun rises - from 4am usually.  Rising up early is a sacrifice we offer as well. Here, since most of the Catholics are working,  it happens around 7 or 8 in the evening.  So attending the mass after a stressful day's work is part of what we offer.

It's like home. From the lanterns and decors to the choir singing lively Christmas carols, kids dancing as angels in jubilance, lectors singing the Psalms by heart, the mass goers - everyone's really in Christmas mood.

Below are some photos of my first Simbang Gabi in 4 years:

My first Simbang Gabi in Sharjah - Kids perform Glory to God
My first Simbang Gabi in Sharjah - Almost no room for the entrance
My first Simbang Gabi in Sharjah - Bishop Paul Hinder addresses the Filipino Catholics in Sharjah
My first Simbang Gabi in Sharjah - The mass has ended
My first Simbang Gabi in Sharjah - The crowd's spill
We're blessed that we can practice this religious tradition in this friendly Islamic nation. We're blessed that the leaders of this nation respect our religion. Simbang Gabi is just one of the rich traditions why the Philippines celebrates Christmas at its best in the whole world. And wherever there are Filipinos, this tradition must happen.

For 9 consecutive nights, people go to church despite a day at work. This goes beyond just a tradition. The massive crowd is a testament of the Filipino Catholic's strong faith.

It would have been perfect if an enticing aroma of bibingka and puto bungbong were up in the air. Well at least when you walk out of the church, you'll hear "kabayan kakanin bili na..." or "ulam kabayan sampu lang..." Well, a bowl of goto from the nearest restaurant will do.

See you next year!

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