SALT LAKE CITY — For years, the Filipino Catholic community in Utah went through the holiday season without Simbang Gabi, but thanks to the state’s first and only Pinoy priest, local kababayans can now experience the centuries-old Philippine Christmas custom.
“Oftentimes we feel nostalgic for the celebration in the Philippines, so we decided that we need to reach the Filipinos (here),” the Rev. Joey Frez said.
Simbang Gabi, the nine-day series of pre-dawn Masses that lead up to Christmas day, has been held in the Philippines since the 16th century. It arrived in Utah just six years ago.
“It helps us prepare for church and Christmas and the Lord’s birthday,” Filipino Catholic Nikki Joo said.
A unique aspect of the Simbang Gabi celebration in Utah is the fact that each Mass is held at a different location, including remote parts of the state.
“We go as far as Logan, which is at the border of Utah and Idaho,” Frez said. “So instead of concentrating on one parish, we go out to different parishes to reach other Filipinos.”
Utah’s Simbang Gabi also attracts members of other faiths, particularly Filipino Mormons.
“They want to participate, and they want to share the culture and see the culture,” Filipino Catholic Agnes Casundo said.
An important part of the Simbang Gabi tradition is the parol. The star-shaped lantern represents various ideas and messages, including the hope and goodwill of Filipinos during the Christmas season.
“And in the Philippine tradition, it symbolizes the lanterns that the people would use to light up their way in going to the early dawn Masses,” Frez said.
In addition to helping people get spiritually prepared for Christmas, organizers hope Simbang Gabi will also educate second-generation Filipinos about their heritage.
“If we don’t do the tradition here, imagine what’s going to happen with the children,” Filipino Catholic Raul Yumul said. “They’re Americanized, and they can easily follow the culture of America.”
They say it’ll be up to the youth of the church to continue to grow the age-old custom in Utah.