Thousands of Filipinos celebrate Christmas tradition in Abu Dhabi

Faithful flock to final day of 'Simbang Gabi', a nine-day series of Masses in run up to Christmas

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They are thousands of kilometres from home, but for the past decade Filipinos have been able to practise one of their most important Christmas traditions in the heart of Abu Dhabi.

On Monday evening, thousands of people packed into the grounds of St Joseph’s Cathedral to celebrate Mass, enjoy some open-air carol singing and share the festive season with their compatriots.

Although for some Christians, the real celebrations may only just be getting under way, this is not the case for Filipinos. Simbang Gabi – a nine-day series of Masses on consecutive days in the run-up to Christmas – is almost as much a part of the holiday season as Christmas Day itself.

“It’s a big tradition; every Filipino will attend as much as possible for nine days,” Maurine Trinidad, a nurse who has been living in Abu Dhabi for almost three years, said during the final day of celebrations. “Even if I am on duty at work in the daytime, I will still come to attend the Mass.”

“It is a known fact that Filipinos are very religious. So it’s one way of showing how devoted we are. Being able to do this here in Abu Dhabi, it makes me emotional because I am thinking about my family at home,” she said.

But Simbang Gabi was not always a feature of the Abu Dhabi festive calendar. Although such events took place in Dubai, there were no similar festivities in the capital.

It took an intervention from Father Troy de Los Santos, one of the priests at St Joseph’s, to change that.

“Everywhere Filipinos are saying this tradition must be there, otherwise something is lacking in the religious culture,” he said. “So I started it in 2009 when I came here.

“I made the request to Bishop Paul Hinder and he gave us permission to celebrate Simbang Gabi here in Abu Dhabi, and now is the 10th anniversary.

“It is very popular. I noticed as early as 4pm, [four hours before Mass started] people were coming already, straight from work. Everyone looks forward to the celebration.

“The message we are giving is about strengthening the faith, and also strengthening the family, because a family that really believes together will always stick it out together.”

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Father Tory De Los Santos at St. JosephÕs Cathedral in Mushrif. Khushnum Bhandari for The National
Father Tory De Los Santos started the Simbang Gabi events in Abu Dhabi a decade ago. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

Estimates of the numbers of attendees at the final night of Simbang Gabi vary. One organiser said he believed between 4,000 and 5,000 people turned out; another said it could be as high as 7,000.

The event has long since moved outside to accommodate worshippers. More than an hour before the Mass began, the hundreds of seats in front of the stage were full. Others watched the service on big screens set up in the grounds of the church.

Standing in the shadow of the Mary the Mother of Jesus Mosque next door, about 100 late arrivals could not even make it into the church grounds, instead craning their necks for a glimpse at the screens from outside.

Earlier, as thousands of Catholics waited for the open-air Mass to begin, a call to prayer was played from the mosque, the sound cascading around the church grounds. In previous years, when the call to prayer has coincided with the outdoor Simbang Gabi service, the Filipino worshippers have halted their own service as a sign of respect.

And it is not just those present who are part of proceedings. The Abu Dhabi Simbang Gabi service was live-streamed on the internet, in part so that those elsewhere in the region who cannot practise their faith openly are able to watch and feel part of the tradition.

At the end of the service, attendees lined up to wish viewers a merry Christmas on the live stream, as hundreds of treat bags, sponsored by local Filipino businesses, were handed out to children.

Many felt this year had extra significance because Pope Francis led a Simbang Gabi service at St Peter’s Basilica earlier this month. It was the first time the head of the Catholic Church had celebrated the Filipino tradition at the Vatican.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Filipino community gathers in massive numbers for the last day mass held at St. JosephÕs Cathedral in Mushrif. Khushnum Bhandari for The National
Members of the Filipino community gather in massive numbers for the last day of Simbang Gabi mass held at St Joseph's Cathedral in Mushrif. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

In Abu Dhabi, Bishop Hinder, who helped organise the Pope’s historic visit to the UAE this year, led the final Simbang Gabi service of 2019.

In his sermon, he told his congregation that “over the past few days, I had two wonderful experiences, where light overcame the shadow of death”.

He spoke about being with Father Michael Egan – a respected Arabian Gulf priest who lived in Bishop’s House at St Joseph’s Cathedral between 2012 and 2015 – as he died last week in Ireland aged 92. Despite his age, Father Egan would still visit Abu Dhabi every year at Christmas and Easter.

“He died in my arms, but there was the light of peace in his face, while the angels accompanied him into the new world,” Bishop Hinder said.

Simbang Gabi is about preparing people and explaining the true meaning of Christmas

Last Wednesday, the bishop was able to celebrate Mass with inmates at a federal prison for the first time. “We chose the readings of Christmas and we could see the joy in the faces of the inmates,” he said. “Christ was and is present even in the shadow of the prison.”

Among the thousands captivated by Bishop Hinder’s words was Adrian Amposta, one of the event organisers.

“Simbang Gabi is about preparing people and explaining the true meaning of Christmas,” Mr Amposta said. “Christmas is really important for Filipinos; it is not just a one-day event, back in the Philippines, it’s a one-month event.”

The health and safety worker arrived in the UAE 12 years ago so he can remember when there was no Simbang Gabi in Abu Dhabi, but has watched as the popularity of event has grown.

“At first we tried to do it inside the church but it could not accommodate us all, so for the last six years or so we’ve done it outside,” he said. “For the past two years especially, every day has been very busy.

“We are all working away from home, so this is like having a second family. Loneliness that some people might have in their hearts is lessened because we are still doing the same traditions, doing what we miss back home. So it’s really a great thing, especially for those who don’t have family here.”