by Dr. BJ Gonzalvo
Malamig ang simoy ng hangin (The breeze of the cold air)
Christmas in the Pacific Northwest can be downright cold and chilly, but for several years before the pandemic, the Simbang Gabi Choir brought not only warmth but gladness, harmony, faith, and cultural spice to the Christmas Eve Masses all around the Seattle Archdiocese. The inability to sing and deliver their music to the faithful has left a huge void in the Christmas air around Seattle and in the lives of the choir singers.
Simbang Gabi celebrations usually don’t start until mid-December but because of the choir members’ passion and dedication for bringing the most joyous and perfect singing, they would typically start preparing and gathering for rehearsals, filling the air with Christmas music already, as early as July. For about five months, the Choir would practice every other week leading up to the commissioning Mass at St. James Cathedral in downtown Seattle.
From an outsider’s perspective, this seems like a lot of precious hours that could be spent doing something other than rehearsing for a once-in-a-year event. But hearing from the participants, and having been a participant myself, despite the grueling demand of perfecting each note of every song, many of us actually found those hours of singing rewarding, rejuvenating, and redemptive. And for the last two seasons since the COVID-19 outbreak, those are hours that are sorely missed by many.
Kay saya ng bawa’t damdamin (Joyful is every feeling)
The choir is no small production with around 75 singers, all volunteers, from different parishes across the Puget Sound area. Some would even drive over an hour from where they lived just to attend the rehearsals. I, myself, had the privilege to participate and sing with the choir one year where I personally experienced not only being a part of such an extravagant production but also the joy that went into the cherished Simbang Gabi tradition and the preparations that came with it.
One of the things you’ll discover is that each member’s participation in the Simbang Gabi choir is not all about the singing and the music but also about sharing the joy of the faith through the vibrancy of the Filipino cultural practices especially around Christmas. Some of the long-term members have admitted that they don’t even have any real experience singing in choir, nor do they even know how to read music. Kudos to our gifted and very patient choir director, Auntie Lita Consolacion, who has masterfully crafted together this collection of mostly novice voices and has made our harmony sound as angelic as could be.
Besides being able to serve and share their fervor for the faith, there was another easily detectable reason why the members kept coming back week after week and year after year: to simply socialize with one another and be merry. For many of these dedicated choir members, the church is their social refuge. So, to feel that sense of belonging and that Christmas cultural vibe they’re accustomed to in the Philippines, giving up their Sunday afternoons is a small price to pay in being able to partake in such merriment.
Ang tibok ng puso sa dibdib (The beating of the heart)
“We sing, we smile, we laugh, we cry, and we eat. We pray that through our Filipino migrants, the name of Jesus, the beauty of the Church, and the justice, mercy and joy of God may reach the ends of the earth.” – Cardinal Tagle
Filipino religiosity and revelry are on full display during the season of Advent. Simbang Gabi brings to life their faith, their evangelistic fervor, their social nature, and their love for singing. Just as how they delight in sharing food delicacies like adobo and lumpia, they also delight in sharing the joy of faith through music. The songs the choir sings serve as a way to remember and remind themselves of their deeply-rooted love for culture and faith, of who they are and where they come from. A flurry of recent research suggests that nostalgia can be a positive psychological resource that helps regulate distress and negative psychological states including loneliness and meaninglessness. Add to that positive feeling of nostalgia the healing power of music and being able to sing with friends and kapwa (the Filipino core value of shared togetherness). Singing for something as rich and meaningful as the Simbang Gabi tradition gives Filipinos in the diaspora a rare opportunity to commemorate and experience the fullness of joy the Christmas season brings, just like how it was “back home.” Christmas in the Philippines is an experience like no other so to be able to find a choir to sing with in the diaspora provides a tiny glimpse into a window that mirrors that joy. It’s a small glimpse but enough to fill the hearts of the faithful just the same.
Para bang hulog ng langit (Like a blessing from heaven)
The choir is now looking forward to next year, 2022, as it marks the 25th anniversary of Simbang Gabi in the Seattle Archdiocese. Prayers are up for these choir singers, and for all of us, to be able to spread good Christmas cheer once again through the beautiful Sound of Christmas (Himig ng Pasko).
Note: The section titles are from parts of a popular Christmas song written by Serapio Ramos, “Himig ng Pasko.”
This article originally appeared in Positively Filipino Magazine.
About the Author:
BJ Gonzalvo, PhD, is a psychologist and an immigrant from the Philippines (now living in Washington) whose research focuses on retracing the indigenous roots of his core value of kapwa to help reframe and rediscover the sacredness of our interconnectedness. His writing, where he often integrates culture, psychology, and spirituality, has appeared in Northwest Catholic, Busted Halo, FilCatholic, and Mind & Spirit. He is the author of Lead Like the Saints (Paulines, 2019) and an upcoming book, Gift of Kapwa (2021). @saintlynest