A worshiper holds a rosary inside the Basilica of the Holy Child in Tacloban, Philippines. For Filipinos, the final nine days leading to Christmas have special meaning.

CNS PHOTO | ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA, REUTERS

A worshiper holds a rosary inside the Basilica of the Holy Child in Tacloban, Philippines. For Filipinos, the final nine days leading to Christmas have special meaning.

December 16, 2013
SIMONE ORENDAIN
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

In the Philippines, the Christmas season starts in September, but the final nine days of Advent have special meaning.

"Generally in the Filipino culture . . . when the 'ber' months come, September, October, November, there are already Christmas decorations," said Father Carmelo Arada Jr. "There are already Christmas carols in the malls."

At first glance, it appears Advent is skipped over altogether in the Philippines. Instead, Arada told Catholic News Service, the season of waiting for Filipinos really starts Dec. 16, the nine days prior to Christmas, known as Simbang Gabi.

Arada, an assistant commissioner on formation at the Manila Archdiocesan Liturgical Commission, said it would appear Filipinos "take for granted" the four weeks before Christmas, called Advent.

The Catholic tradition is to observe this period before Jesus' birth in penitence, which includes certain practices like the Gloria not being sung during Mass.

NINE DAYS

On the grounds of St. John Bosco Parish in Makati City, just outside Manila, Sheila de Leon was on her way to say her daily rosary at the chapel in early December. The 27-year old waitress told CNS, "On Simbang Gabi, I will go to Mass every day (for the nine days) at dawn."

Arada said in the 17th century, under Spanish colonial rule, the Church allowed the Philippines to have a more celebratory observance of Advent during this nine-day period.

"Even during Sundays of Advent when it is Simbang Gabi, we can sing the Gloria, we can wear white vestments," he said. "I think even in the 17th century, carols were sung during these nine days."

Arada said Filipinos believe their wishes will be granted if they complete the nine straight days of Mass, which can be attended at the start of the day or in the early evening. He said the Masses were originally celebrated in honour of Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus. Each day represented one month.

"The season of Advent is - I think this is Christmas because the happiest season is in December," said Elisa Paniagua, who had just attended noon Mass at St. John Bosco. "My feeling is it starts (with) merriment."

Paniagua, 59, also plans to attend Mass at dawn every day starting Dec. 16. She told CNS this Simbang Gabi, she will pray as always for the safety of her family, which is made up mostly of seafarers, and she said she will especially pray that her son passed the bar exam.

As a liturgical minister at her local church, Ella Ambata is familiar with Advent. She said putting up Christmas decorations in September is a way of preparing "for the coming of the Lord."

"This is one instance, no matter what happened recently, everybody looks forward to Christmas," Ambata told CNS, highlighting "that recognition alone that there is hope, and there's the coming of the Lord."

ALWAYS HOPE

Ambata was referring to the super typhoon that barreled its way through the central Philippines in November, leaving more than 5,600 people dead and about 1,800 missing.

Jesuit Father Arnel Aquino said Advent and Christmas are separated by a "very, very thin line."

"Suffice it to say that Filipinos have enough poverty and suffering every single day that the 'penitence' that Advent is technically to be observed is overtaken by the joyful anticipation of Christmas," he told CNS.

"When someone you love very dearly is about to celebrate his birthday soon, you don't prepare for that birthday by beating your breast every day, asking for forgiveness from him – and then, when the birthday comes, then that's the only time to really be happy.

"Nope. The 'Filipino Advent' is a joyful preparation for Christmas."