SINGAPORE -- They may be outside the country, but many Filipinos in Singapore are making sure their celebration of Christmas still feels like home.
In the process, they have introduced some uniquely Filipino Christmas traditions to Singaporeans and other nationalities in the city state -- the Simbang Gabi, a series of nine pre-dawn Catholic Masses; and the Philippine lantern or parol, which now adorns many Catholic churches here.
When the novena Masses were first introduced in Singapore in 1999, the Filipino language was used, since only Filipinos were attending the Masses, said Catholic priest Angel Luciano, who is also a Filipino.
But Father Angel, as he is known to his parishioners, said he eventually shifted to using English during the Mass because more and more foreigners began attending.
The number of churchgoers trying to complete the nine novena Masses has grown. For the second Mass this year, close to a thousand churchgoers showed up at the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, said Father Angel.
?The turn out was simply overwhelming,? he said.
Church volunteers and priests of other nationalities have also joined the novena Masses. Last year, a parish priest of the Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, who is Vietnamese, concelebrated the Masses, said Father Angel.
Simbang Gabi, Singapore-style, is held at 8 p.m. and each Mass is held in a different church.
There are about 120,000 Filipinos in Singapore, 80,000 of them domestic workers.
Looking for the churches is easy and fun, one churchgoer told Father Angel in a recent email.
She said she and her elder brother, who were joining the Simbang Gabi in Singapore for the first time last year, simply went to the nearest bus station.
How did they know which of the buses to take? She said the technique was to look for the bus ?with the longest, and usually the noisiest, line of Filipinos.?
?We never got lost in looking for the churches,? she said in her e-mail.
Having to visit different churches also gives the experience a deeper meaning, she added.
Host parishes cook free food for the churchgoers. Gifts are distributed to children. Members of the community also take turns decorating the parish with lanterns, a symbol for Filipinos that Christmas is just around the corner.
Father Angel receives numerous e-mails from churchgoers expressing gratitude for being able to experience a truly Filipino Christmas even if they are miles away from home.
One e-mail writer said it was the first time he had actually completed the nine Masses, and he has done it outside the Philippines.
Other lanterns mentioned the joy of visiting different churches in Singapore, which combines sightseeing with the fervor of the Visita Iglesia, yet another folk-religious tradition that sees thousands of Filipinos on pilgrimage to several churches during Holy Week.
Last year, a priest of another parish expressed happiness about being part of the Simbang Gabi experience.
Father Angel said the parish priest ?congratulated the Filipinos for filling the churches of Singapore and the world with their presence.?
It is therefore not surprising that each of the parishes they visit for the novena Masses is always teeming with churchgoers, Father Angel said. The world has started to know Filipinos not only for their skills and diligence, but also for their deep faith and unique Christmas traditions.