Nine Days Before Christmas, Filipinos Continue Tradition While Respecting COVID Safety Restrictions

After the novena Mass, one Simbang Gabi attendee took a selfie in front of the nativity set at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Queens Village, Dec. 20. (Photos: Melissa Enaje)
Guests sat socially distanced in pews and wore masks during the sixth day of the Simbang Gabi novena Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Queens Village, Dec. 20. The nine-day novena ends on Dec. 24.
Simbang Gabi novena Masses were live-streamed on the parish’s Facebook page for those parishioners who could not attend the traditional event for safety or health reasons.
The parish’s Magnificat prayer group sang during the sixth day of the Simbang Gabi novena Mass, Dec. 20.
Our Lady of Lourdes Church nativity by the altar.


Scaled-down versions of Simbang Gabi, or “Mass at Night,” was celebrated at churches across the diocese

QUEENS VILLAGE -— Lita Panganiban was breathing heavily through a blue face mask after celebrating the sixth evening of “Simbang Gabi” novena Masses with guests and other parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Dec. 21.

Various ministries across the Diocese of Brooklyn adapted to new norms amidst coronavirus safety protocols, including limiting church capacity, wearing masks, and socially distanced seated in the pews. For Filipinos celebrating “Simbang Gabi,” or “Mass at Night” at the Queens Village church, the adjustment meant a scaled-down version of its traditional celebration. But for Panganiban, the essential part of the event will continue, the 73-year-old says.

“We believe that this is the time Jesus was born,” she said. “You can’t stop it.”

Panganiban has been a parishioner at the Queens church for more than 40 years. For more than 25 of those years, she has helped coordinate several Filipino cultural events, including Simbang Gabi.

“We organized it, and we tried to follow all the social distancing rules,” she said. “Before we used to have food every night, but now we can’t do it. [Usually,] every night someone serves food and then at the end, we have a big Christmas party.”

Panganiban said she misses the food and fellowship part of the celebration.

“This is a big tradition of the Philippines,” she added. 

As for Ofelia De Jesus, a retiree, and member of the Filipino ministry, she says Simbang Gabi is one event that reminds her of home because Christmas decorations in the Philippines start happening in September. De Jesus said she could not travel to the Philippines because of the COVID-19 travel restrictions. So in the meantime, she says continuing her faith traditions will at least bring her joy.

For Filipinos, the Christmas season’s heart is “Simbang Gabi,” or “Mass at Night,” a nine-day novena of Masses that culminates on Christmas Eve. The tradition began during the Spanish colonial period of the Philippines — which dates back to the early 16th century. The cultural celebration at the Queens parish started in the 1990s and has brought a strong sense of community for parishioners.

Father Patrick Longalong, the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, is the coordinator of the Ministry to Filipino Immigrants. He says the community understands the safety protocols in place and that they are doing their best to accommodate the people who can attend the Mass and those who are watching at home.

On any other given Simbang Gabi year, not during a global pandemic, a social gathering would include cultural dancing, serving trays of traditional Filipino food, singing, and fellowship. This year, parishioners decided to distribute the food in to-go bags.

“You really cannot take away the food portion of it,” Father Longalong added. “There is something about having food within a community gathering. It brings people together. It’s a sign of friendship and a big part of the value of hospitality. So by giving food or offering food, it’s not just a polite gesture, but it is a gesture of hospitality.”

Other diocesan parishes celebrated Simbang Gabi, included St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Flatlands; St. Sebastian Church, Woodside, and St. Mary Gate of Heaven Church, Ozone Park. Corpus Christi Church in Woodside did not hold the traditional celebration.

“I think the good thing about this is that we focused right now on what is important — which is the Mass,” said Father Longalong. “It’s not just a tradition. For them, it’s an opportunity to connect with God.”