Filipino Christmas traditions alive and well in Canada

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced many to change how they celebrate the Christmas season, including members of the Filipino community who attend midnight masses.

Filipino Christmas traditions
Fr. Edmund Vargas spoke to the CBC about the importance of keeping Filipino Christmas traditions alive in Canada. Via @CBC

They might be far away from the Philippines, but Catholics in Calgary are making sure to keep their Filipino Christmas traditions going strong in Canada.

Members of the Filipino community gathered at St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church to celebrate midnight mass, called Simbang Gabi in Pilipino.

Simbang Gabi is a series of masses heard on nine consecutive nights leading up to Christmas.

Filipinos from the predominantly Catholic nation consider the attending the midnight masses a sign of their faith and devotion.

Fr. Edmund Vargas, the pastor at St. Anthony’s, spoke to CBC News saying “It’s a devotion, and so, it’s important to be consistent, and to be persevering in the effort to express faith.”

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, religious gatherings, including midnight masses, are required to follow public health protocols.

Those attending must be masked and practice social distancing. Scattered across the church are hand sanitizing stations.

Unlike in years past, the number of people attending midnight mass are small.

“When we have these masses here, pre-pandemic times, we usually have a packed church,” Fr. Vargas told the CBC.

With the provincial government of Alberta imposing additional restrictions, the church can only take in 15% of what they are normally allowed.

Those attending mass must also wear masks and stay at least two metres away from those not from their own household.

Fr. Vargas has taken to live-streaming masses, so that those who can’t come in person can still attend.

He’s pleased with the results, with more than a thousand households attending online.

Fr. Vargas points to how deeply rooted Filipino faith and traditions are in the Filipino community in Calgary.

Mary Kate Aquino, a student from Mount Royal University sang during the service. She told the CBC that attending midnight masses were a big part of the Filipino community’s Christmas traditions in Calgary.

“The church would be packed, not just this church, but also at St. Albert the Great and Sacred Heart. Here was a big community of people coming together, and I think it’s great that we can celebrate Christmas together.”

She remembers when she attended midnight mass as a child, the entire mass would be held in Pilipino.

“But with things changing and with how culture is nowadays, the last couple of years they’ve incorporated English, especially because the kids that are born here, at times they don’t understand Tagalog,” Aquino told the CBC.

Fr. Vargas has worked in several parishes around Calgary and is amazed at how many Filipino maintain their faith by still attending mass despite their busy schedules.

“I’ve been to several churches in the Diocese of Calgary. And there’s so many Filipinos all the time, everywhere,” Fr. Vargas said.

Fr. Vargas has had to adapt to the times, often speaking in a combination of Pilipino and English. He says that it allows him to reach more Filipinos across different age groups.

“Over the years, even Christmas carols being sung in the church have been enriched by this Simbang Gabi tradition,” Fr. Vargas shared with the CBC. “So, there are mixed kinds of music wherein they kind of interplay the various traditions. So it’s a wonderful kind of development in the Filipino tradition, especially in the context of their Christian faith.”

Fr. Vargas told the CBC that it was important that they make an effort to reach out to all the members of the community, including the non-Filipinos to make sure that everyone feels welcome and that they belong.

Fr. Vargas has had to work on hearing mass in English, which requires a bit more effort than usual.

“I have to adjust and study a bit. Sometimes I mispronounce words but I think people understand that,” Fr. Vargas said.

The effort, it would seem, is all worthwhile, as long as Filipino Christmas traditions are kept alive and well in Canada.

SOURCE: CBC is NOT affiliated with the Government of Canada, the Philippine Government, or any Philippine recruitment agencies or Canadian immigration consultants or lawyers.

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