For Filipinos, an Abrupt Directive Alters a Christmas Ritual

Filipinos carry a statue of the Virgin Mary as they participated in a religious procession on Saturday in Manhattan to mark the start of the Filipino advent season.

By COREY KILGANNON – Those who complain that the Christmas season starts earlier and earlier each year might find solace in hearing how Filipinos traditionally celebrate the season — theirs can stretch from as early as September to late January.

“We have the longest Christmas season, and we go all-out,” said Aurora Aquino, a Filipino-born fashion designer. “Christmas is a very big deal for Filipinos.”

Ms. Aquino was holding an umbrella decorated into a highly adorned canopy, as were a few other women marching with dozens of Filipino immigrants through the streets of Midtown to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Saturday night.

The procession was something of a kickoff to Simbang Gabi, a nine-day Roman Catholic ritual observed before Christmas in the Philippines. Masses during Simbang Gabi can begin as early as 4 a.m., a tradition that is said to date back centuries, to the time when Filipino farmers under Spanish rule had to rise early to find time to worship before toiling in the fields. This year, the nine days of Masses begins Wednesday.

Christmas, Filipino-style, is celebrated with decorative statues of the Virgin Mary and a variety of meals and snacks. But this year in New York, the holiday has also been marked by controversy, which has curtailed the traditional Masses said for the past quarter-century in a hall in the Philippine Consulate General at 46th Street and Fifth Avenue.

The service, which has been attended by hundreds of local immigrants, was traditionally conducted as a formal liturgical Mass by Catholic priests administering communion. But a directive several weeks ago from the Archdiocese of New York urged organizers of the consulate event to no longer offer formal Catholic Mass at the consulate because it is not a sacred worship place.

The directive came too abruptly to make other plans, organizers said, and it angered some Filipinos who considered the site a slice of home. Organizers sent a letter to the archdiocese asking for special permission to celebrate a Mass at the consulate “informing him of the history of the event and why it is very important to the Filipino community,” said Theresa De Vega, deputy consul general.

She said on Monday that the archdiocese had not yet responded. If no response comes by Tuesday, the group will hold prayer services for the nine days, instead of a formal Mass. No communion will be distributed.

Ms. De Vega said Mass had been offered at the consulate partly because traditional morning Masses are often said before sunrise, which may not be possible to accommodate in local churches. It was still unclear how curtailing the Mass would affect attendance, she said.

Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, said the archdiocese informed the Filipino clergy that holding a formal Mass in a nonsacred space like the consulate was against “not simply the politics of the Archdiocese, but the teachings of the church, and it applies to the Filipino community as much as anyone else.”

Mr. Zwilling said that Filipino Catholics were “one of the strongest and most faithful groups in the Archdiocese of New York,” and that archdiocese officials had offered space in St. Patrick’s available for Simbang Gabi Masses and were arranging a meeting to discuss a solution “that respects the history and traditions of the Filipino community and the canon law of the church.”

The decision did not seem to dampen Saturday’s procession, which began at 5:30 p.m. at Cathedral High School at 56th Street and First Avenue and snaked through Midtown toward St. Patrick’s.

Worshipers pushed various statues of the Virgin Mary, with names like Our Lady of Manhattan and Our Lady of Good Health, an ornamental jeweled statue that is kept on Staten Island and tended to by a nurse who brings it to the homes of the infirm.

The smallest statue led the procession: the International Pilgrim Statue of Our Lady of Fatima, which the celebrants said was made in 1947 by an artist who took his description from a person who said the virgin appeared to her as a child in Fatima, Portugal.

Behind a police patrol car with its roof-lights flashing, a line of women held electric candles, sang hymns and repeated the Hail Mary and other prayers.

After a lengthy logjam at the entrance to St. Patrick’s, the group proceeded down the main aisle and placed the statues in front of the altar. There were already hundreds of Filipinos from the New York area in the pews.

There was a choral program with children dressed as angels and shepherds, and then — in the cathedral — a traditional Catholic Mass that included readings in Tagalog.

“Many people are not happy about this,” said Aida Gamolo, who helped organize the procession. “But I think it is important that to be obedient to the bishop because he is protecting canonical laws.”

A statue of Our Lady of Fatima is carried to the altar during a Filipino Advent mass on Saturday night at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

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