Christmas in Singapore (Simbang Gabi and Christmas Eve Mass)

I need to revise my blog after a year I wrote it. I was quite judgmental of the country’s celebration of Christmas after experiencing it for a brief period. Here was my blog then –

“I need to finish my last post before December ends. I am so tired. I traveled 22 kilometers from Bukit Panjang to Bugis to visit Sim Lim Square and window shop for iphone 4s and ipad 2 only to be informed later that they have the same prices in the Philippines. I slouched in a chair at an internet shop in Lucky Plaza thinking this would be a good resting place while waiting for my wife. This internet shop is one of the very few here in Singapore that caters to Filipino domestic helpers during holidays and day-offs.

I came here last Christmas eve. My plane landed at exactly 8:34PM. I expected to experience the same revelry we have in the Philippines. I was disappointed. In Singapore, it was just any given Saturday night. I hurried my family for a noche buena in a nearby Chinese restaurant only to to find out that they are already about to close at 10:00 PM…”

I could say now that I had some misconceptions on how Singaporeans celebrate Christmas. It’s true that they don’t celebrate it with much fanfare as compared to the way they celebrate Chinese New Year, but I witnessed how they were very ardent in observing and attending masses especially the Novena masses before Christmas (“Simbang Gabi”).

Simbang Gabi at St. Michael's Church in the City
Simbang Gabi at St. Michael’s Church in the City

I completed the 9 days of Novena masses here in Singapore hopping from one church to another every night. It was quite an ordeal since we had to locate and plan our route to the churches we would attend masses. The tradition or annual practice already endemic to Filipinos was started by Father Angel Luciano here in Singapore 14 years ago. And every year the churches hosting the “Simbang Gabi” get filled to the brim. The masses are followed by the serving of the “Arroz Caldo” (For those who don’t know the dish, it’s a porridge [lugaw] made of chicken stock [Sabaw ng Manok], ginger [luya], and lemon grass [tanglad]). The hot porridge was sometimes coupled with sandwiches or plain bread. The combination really filled my tummy since I, most of the time, secretly secured two servings.

What made the hair stand up on my spine was the singing of mostly Filipino songs in the masses, and their sweet rendition by choirs composed mostly of Filipinos. It was one way of telling Singapore that we are good singers and good song-writers. I could never be more proud to be a Filipino on those occasions. Father Luciano has tenaciously supervised the success of this Filipino tradition in a foreign land. Singaporeans observe and witness the steadfastness of Filipinos in their faith. This piety served as a beacon for most non-Catholics to join the Church. Every Sunday, more and more locals join Filipinos attend masses in different churches all over the small state. I just heard that five more Catholic Churches will be built in Singapore this year to accommodate the growing number of devotees.

Church of St. Joseph at Bukit Timah
Church of St. Joseph at Bukit Timah

After completing the Novena came Christmas Eve. I chose to attend mass with my family in a church within the neighborhood. The mass started at exactly twelve o’clock midnight. This was the same time we used to hold our Christmas eve masses in the Philippines until it was re-scheduled to ten o’clock. We arrived at the St. Joseph Church at around 11:20 PM. Much to my surprise, it was already filled. “Am I in the Philippines?” I asked myself. We were directed to occupy the second floor mezzanine  of the church where there were still vacant seats. We were lucky, there were still some spaces to accommodate us. St. Joseph [Bukit Timah] Church is a big church, capable of holding four columns of pews that can extend up to 20 meters in rows. The number of those who attended the mass was maybe nearing a thousand. Yet I can’t believe, as early as eleven o’clock, the church was already in full capacity, reminiscent of our “Siete Palabras” in the Philippines. The community surrounding St. Joseph Church in Bukit is composed mostly of chinese, malays, and indians. In this part of Singapore, Filipinos are not fairly concentrated unlike in the nearby Bukit Batok community where Filipinos are in the thousands. I thus expected that not so many would observe the Christmas Eve mass. I was wrong.

The lay persons are either chinese, indians or malays. They are very courteous; traits we usually experience (in the Philippines) at any El Shaddai’s or other charismatic congregations’ gatherings. Parking was very orderly, very Singaporean.

After the mass, we headed back to our place with our guests and shared the Christmas Noche Buena.

I am quite embarrassed with the way I pictured Singapore’s Christmas last year. This year, it’s quite a very good experience. But I still long for my next year’s Christmas in the Philippines.

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