For Rod Ranola, the beloved Filipino ritual of Simbang Gabi meant serving as a deacon at Mass on Thursday and later enjoying the pancit, special desserts and warm atmosphere of the after-Mass celebration.
Ranola, who is assigned to St. Isaac Jogues parish in Niles, participated in the 7 p.m. Mass at the church along with Revs. Andrew Luczak and Cam Janos.
"Simbang Gabi is a tradition that started in the Philippines when we were under Spain (1521-1898). It's a time for people to gather and worship together," he said. "To make it festive, we have special foods and desserts. We want to welcome people, and the way to do that is to be hospitable."
Odette Ramos, a volunteer who helped serve food at the party, says that Simbang Gabi (pronounced Sim-BAHNG Gah-BEE) is a novena, meaning the devout attend Mass for each of the nine days leading up to Christmas Eve to prepare for it spiritually. Various churches in the area hold celebrations on different days, and the faithful can go from one church to another each day.
"The novena is part of Filipino spirituality," said Ranola. "It's what we can give to our lord as a sign of gratefulness for all he has given us."
At St. Isaac Jogues' Simbang Gabi Mass, worshippers filled every pew and an adult choir and a youth choir sang in both Tagalog and English. Only one church offers a Tagalog-only Mass, however; Ranola said Filipinos want to welcome non-Filipinos into the celebration and don't want language to be a barrier.
After Mass, at least 200 attendees streamed into the church's Holy Family Room and sat at long tables, waiting to be called to the buffet of pancit, a Filipino noodle dish, egg rolls and lechon, a tender roast pork. Desserts included puto, a rice cake; hopia, a bean cake; carioca, a deep-fried ball with a sweet gooey center and palipaw, a purple confection that is made from boiling a sweet flour mixture, according to Ramos.
For many of those in the room, the celebration brought back fond memories of growing up in the Philippines.
"We used to wake up at 4 a.m. and walk miles to go to Mass," Ranola said. "I remember the smell of the desserts."
Ramos said the Masses started at that hour so farmers and fishermen could attend and then go about their work days.
"On your way home from Mass, you'd pass little stores and they'd be making delicacies, like carioca and puto bumbong," Ramos said. "You look forward to that when you come home from church. You have them with coffee, and then all the houses have lots of parols."
Parols are star-shaped traditional Filipino Christmas decorations.
In addition to the spiritual and celebratory aspects of Simbang Gabi, Ramos maintained it's also an opportunity for courtship.
"A lot of young men--it's part of the culture--if the boys can wake up early to go to Mass, that impresses the girls," she said. "I think some of them go more to impress the girls than to go to church."
Following are some upcoming local Simbang Gabi Masses:
On Dec. 18 at 5 p.m., celebrations will be held at St. Peter, 8100 Niles Center Rd. in Skokie; 8307 N. Harlem Ave. in Niles; and 8300 N. Greenwood Ave. in Niles.
Francis Cardinal George will hold observances on Dec. 23 at 6:30 p.m. at St. Martha's Catholic Church, 8523 Georgiana St. in Morton Grove.