Diocesan News

God’s Son, Savior of the World, Celebrated Throughout ‘Diocese of Immigrants’

Original artwork by The Tablet’s lead designer, Faby Eisenberg.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Diocese of Brooklyn is known as the “Diocese of Immigrants.” Its international flavor means that Mass is celebrated in 30 languages, and church pews are filled with parishioners of many nationalities. All month, The Tablet is taking a look at how different cultures represented in the diocese celebrate Christmas. This week: Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Pakistan, Romania, and the culture of Garifuna. 

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Before sunrise on Christmas Day, children all over the world anxiously await a green light to open presents. Meanwhile, in the Dominican Republic, it’s time for more caroling. 

“Around 4 or 5 a.m., we get together in front of the church, and we walk around the whole neighborhood singing,” said Father Elvin Torres, a Dominican native. “People love it because they wake up listening to those Christmas songs, which is amazing.” 

Father Torres became parochial vicar for St. Sebastian Parish, Woodside, upon his ordination in June 2021. He was born in Santiago Rodríguez Province of the Dominican Republic — the Caribbean nation which spans one-half of the island of Hispaniola. 

He said many of the Catholic Christmas traditions he enjoyed as a boy are giving way to more secular activities. Still, people enjoy Christmas-morning caroling, called “mañanitas.” 

“After,” Father Torres added, “there was someone who was always preparing to receive all the singers, and they served this really popular ginger tea, and sometimes it was hot chocolate.” 

Father Torres said caroling sometimes features a re-enactment of the Nativity. 

“The people choose a house of friends or family, who are inside, and they have this conversation back and forth, like when Mary and Joseph were looking for a place to stay,” Father Torres said. “At the end of this dialogue, the people inside end up saying, ‘Okay, come to my house. You are welcome here. Stay here.’ It is beautiful.” 

Feasting on Dec. 24 is like a combination of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, Father Torres said. He fondly recalled how families would carry their dining room tables out to the street to connect with their neighbors’ tables and share all the food they prepared. 

Favorites include turkey, chicken, or pork. Whatever the meat, most tables have pigeon peas with rice and salads. Father Torres said treats included cookies, candy, and more. 

“When I was young,” he said, “we only had grapes and apples at Christmastime.” 

El Pase del Niño 

At first glance, Christmas celebrations in Ecuador may seem indistinguishable from other counties, said Father Romel Peñafiel, parochial vicar for St. Andrew Avellino Parish in Flushing. 

He is a native of that South American nation and coordinator of the Ministry to the Ecuadorian Immigrants in the Diocese of Brooklyn. 

“It’s almost the same as Spain or Italy because we learned from them,” he said. “But the most traditional thing in Ecuador is El Pase del Niño — the Child’s Pass — when the kids dress up as Mary, as Joseph, the shepherds.” 

Participants then march to their parish church for the novena of the Holy Child infant — El Niño. 

“Usually after that, they share things for the kids like hot chocolate, cookies, or other treats,” Father Peñafiel said. “Of course, we have the best hot chocolate in the world. It’s homemade chocolate from cocoa beans grown right there in Ecuador.” 

Ecuadorians attend midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, but they call it La Misa del Gallo — “The Rooster Mass.” This tradition began in Spain, although Father Peñafiel said it’s unclear exactly how the Mass got its name. 

Legend has it that a rooster was among the animals in the stable when Jesus was born in the manger. Another theory is that the rooster announced the birth by crowing. 

Pakistani Peace Train

One often reads about religious tensions between faith groups in Pakistan, but that’s not the whole story, especially at Christmastime, according to Father Ilyas Gill. 

He is the pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, Windsor Terrace, and coordinator of the Pakistani Ministry in the diocese. 

“It’s really a joyful time in Pakistan for Christians and Muslims alike,” said Father Gill, who served parishes in the Karachi, Pakistan area before coming to the U.S. 

He described how a “peace train” — painted red and festooned with decorations — chugs across the nation, promoting goodwill, from Lahore to Karachi. 

“Sometimes,” Father Gill said, “my Muslim friends say, ‘When are you going to celebrate Christmas? When are you going to invite us? When are you going to share that Christmas cake with us?’ ” 

Father Gill said people of all faiths enjoy gathering to ceremoniously cut Christmas cakes — some weighing 20 pounds or more — and to sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. “Of course, cake is my favorite,” he added. 

Father Gill said most people seek the joy of the season, despite their different faiths. 

“There are always some people who don’t like it,” he said. “But the majority of people say ‘Merry Christmas.’ ” 

Many non-Catholics attend midnight Mass to experience the joy and peace that permeates parishes, Father Gill said. 

That is not so hard to comprehend, he added, considering Muslims know about Jesus Christ, although they consider him a prophet, not a savior. 

“They come because it is a very special Mass, with a very special grace,” Father Gill said of midnight Mass. “Yeah, they are Muslim, but they believe in the power of Christian prayer. 

Caroling and Cozonaci 

Like many people, Father Radu Titonea has wonderful memories of going to his grandmother’s house for Christmas. 

Father Titonea, a Byzantine Catholic priest, is a chaplain for Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Forest Hills, and the diocese’s director of the apostolate for Romanian immigrants. He lived much of his life in Sibiu, a city in central Romania, which has a more “secular” holiday atmosphere — an artifact of the now-gone Communist rule. 

“A lot of my friends who are priests in Romania still have caroling in the church,” he said. “But it depends on the region. The most traditional is in the northern part of Romania, in Transylvania. 

As a young boy, however, Father Titonea lived in his grandparents’ rural village, where traditions glowed brightly. 

First, the season began with the annual slaughtering of the family’s fatted pig. Father Titonea said a portion of the meat makes for a succulent feast. 

“I remember one of the best things was fresh sausage fried with mashed potatoes,” he said. “That was really delicious. And after that, for the new year, they have meatball soup. Now that was very, very good.” 

The rest of the pork is preserved, usually in a smoker, to serve throughout the year. 

Caroling begins on Christmas Eve, with participants dressed up in colorful folk attire. Their singing is rewarded with sweets, fruit, traditional cakes called cozonaci, and sometimes money. 

“Everybody in the village was so, so happy,” Father Titonea said. “At every door, people were happy to receive them, and their singing, to bring the good news that Christ is born.” 

‘God hugged us’ 

Garifuna is not on any map because it’s not a country. It’s a language with origins in the Caribbean Island of St. Vincent. 

The language evolved into a blend of mostly Arawak, French, and Spanish, as its speakers moved to the eastern coasts of Central America in the late 1700s and early 1800s. 

A century later, pockets of Garifuna speakers — most of them Catholic — settled in New York City, now home to about 250,000 of them, with most being in the Bronx and Brooklyn. 

But their ancestors had already been celebrating Christmas for a few hundred years, said Matias Mejia of Brooklyn, who speaks Garifuna. 

“Jesus Christ was born into our culture,” Mejia said. “So we talk about the incarnation, and for us, that means God hugged us with his love.” 

Mejia, who is from Honduras, teaches Spanish in New York public schools, but Garifuna is his first language. With his family, he worships at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Brownsville, one of two in the diocese with Garifuna-speaking people. The other is St. Gabriel the Archangel, part of Mary, Mother of the Church Parish in East New York. 

Mejia explained how African people working on St. Vincent plantations intermarried with the indigenous Arawak people. Their descendants moved east across the Caribbean Sea and settled in Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize. Missionaries from Spain brought Catholicism and Christmas to Garifuna speakers, Mejia said. 

To celebrate, the Garifuna speakers enjoy traditional dances, like those from the Jankunú festival. Feasting ensues, he added, with 32 special dishes, many based on seafood like red snapper and sea bass. Other recipes feature plantains and rice, and beans. 

“God hugged us into fraternity and solidarity so that we consider everybody in the world our brother or sister — a big family,” Mejia said. “Christmas brings us together.”