Thousands of Filipino Catholics from throughout Southern California celebrated the beginning of Simbang Gabi, a 500-year-old Filipino Christmas tradition, with a special Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Dec. 15.

The evening Mass began the nine-day Advent celebration for the Filipino community, which consists of the faithful going to daily Mass and praying the rosary in preparation for the birth of Christ.

“Simbang Gabi is an Advent celebration for our family to focus on Mary, Joseph and Jesus,” said Father Albert Avenido of St. Philomena Church in Carson, who is in charge of Filipino Ministry for the San Fernando Region of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

This year’s theme, “Jesus Our Savior, Empower Our Families to be Better Stewards of Your Creation,” encouraged the faithful to be “good stewards of human life.”

“In our modern time, we have become commercialized. We neglect our spiritual self,” said Father Avenido.

Principal celebrant Archbishop José H. Gomez presided over the Mass and Bishop Oscar A. Solis, auxiliary bishop for the San Pedro Pastoral Region and the first Filipino-American bishop ordained in the United States, gave the homily. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop emeritus for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, and other auxiliary bishops also concelebrated the Dec. 15 Mass.

“We await God’s coming and his birth,” said Bishop Solis during his homily.

The celebration began with a procession of star-shaped lanterns, or parols, carried by parishioners from numerous churches and organizations throughout the archdiocese. The parol, a Philippine Christmas symbol, “represents the bright star that the three wise men saw as they traveled to Bethlehem.”

Traditionally, Simbang Gabi — or “Mass before dawn” — is celebrated at the crack of dawn in the Philippines. Bands march through the town waking people up at 3 a.m., making a joyful procession to church. Bells ring, signifying the start of Mass. After Mass, the faithful enjoy Filipino delicacies, such as puto bumbong, a purple rice cake cooked in bamboo tubes served with hot ginger tea.