St Mary’s Catholic Church in Dubai is attended by 30,000 to 35,000, a majority of whom are Filipinos, every night during Simbang Gabi, which means ‘night masses’. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News Archives

Dubai: Tens of thousands of Catholics in the UAE are expected to flock to the nine-day evening and dawn masses beginning this weekend in anticipation of Christmas in what is popularly known as ‘Simbang Gabi’.

‘Simbang Gabi’ (Filipino for Night Masses) is one of the most awaited gatherings of Catholics every year. It is a devotional nine-day series of masses in the run-up to Christmas, which is held daily at dawn.

St Mary’s Catholic Church in Dubai sees between 30,000 and 35,000 attendees, majority of whom are Filipinos, every night during Simbang Gabi. Additionally, the church saw nearly 5,000 faithfuls at the dawn mass that started at 4am last year when they first offered this mass timing.

Though hundreds of thousands come, not many know the origin of this centuries-old tradition that is popular until now among Filipinos. Gulf News caught up with Father Chito Bartolo OFM Cap, a Filipino priest at St. Mary’s Church, to trace back the story behind this practice that has long been part of the Filipino Catholic tradition.

Simbang Gabi, Father Bartolo said, began late in the 1600 during the Spanish era. The Philippines was colonised by the Spaniards for three centuries and they brought their Roman Catholic faith along with them.

“There is no written document on this popular tradition that could tell us why our forefathers held Simbang Gabi back then and when exactly they started it. But it can be traced back to two names: Aguinaldo masses and Misa de Gallo,” Father Bartolo told Gulf News.

It was called Aguinaldo, which in Spanish means gift or bonus, because it represented the exchange of gifts on Christmas day when God gave His Son Jesus to the world and when man went to church to offer his faith as a gift to God for His faithfulness, Father Bartolo said.

Misa de Gallo on the other hand, refers to the rooster. In the olden days, our ancestors did not have alarm clocks but depended on the crows of roosters to signal the beginning of a new day.

“The Spanish priests held the masses early morning at 4am to give farmers and Filipinos working early a chance to attend before going out to the field. But besides these two reasons, I think one of the other symbolic reason why they held it early in the morning was because of their recognition of Jesus Christ who came to the world to bring light in a world in darkness.”

Father Bartolo also explained that the mass runs for nine days because it is a novena (Latin for ‘nine’), which signals it as a time of prayer and meditation.

When asked if the age-old belief that “wishes” come true for those who are able to complete the nine-day mass, Father Bartolo said that it may not be “wishes” but prayers that get answered.

“There have been many testimonies of prayers getting answered after Simbang Gabi — people getting jobs, families reconciling, restoration of marriages, and many more hard-to-explain but true-to-life events. But the only common thing for all of them was prayer and the sacrifice they made during the nine-day Simbang Gabi.”

Simbang Gabi schedule

St Mary’s Catholic Church, Dubai

When: December 15 to 23

Timings: 4am and 8pm

St Joseph’s Cathedral, Abu Dhabi

When: December 15 onwards

Timings: 8pm

St Michael’s Catholic Church, Sharjah

When: December 15 to 23

Timings: ◦Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 8pm; Friday at 6.45pm; and Sunday at 7.30pm