clarendon in Arlington County, Virginia has a population count of 2,000 give or take. The count fluctuates slightly from census year to the next but in Decembers, the numbers predictably increase; sometimes close to 2,999. Nine days in December, year after year, and now on its 12th year. On the 10th day, the count recedes to its previous level. Clarendon settles back to its population range.
The phenomenon is not a mystery. And for the “population” who account for the increase, it is a minor miracle to gather in a neighboring town eager to rise and shine at the crack of dawn, nine days in a row. No rooster crows a wake-up call; but cell phone alarms pierce the dark beginnings of dawn and by 4:55 a.m., cars line up to claim their spaces in a parking lot in Clarendon, Virginia.
They come. We come. The distance we cover depends on the time it takes to drive on black ice or the effort to layer on clothing required to brave the frigid winds of winter. We may not be residents of Clarendon, but we are physically there for nine days of December. Travel time from Burke might take half an hour. From Baltimore, playing safe in case of road conditions, a good 45 minutes. Families from neighboring Mclean, Annandale, Falls Church, Fairfax, Washington, DC, and far-flung Springfield, Centerville or Herndon easily make it in 20 minutes or less being the sole vehicle on a lonely stretch of highway.
Infants are bundled up for this occasion. They arrive hardly able to blink or breathe. They ponder wide-eyed on this strange routine, but not a blessed peep from them. They wisely acquiesce to the illogical ways of parents. Teenagers, on the other hand, are molasses at seven; how much more at four in the morning! But like the legendary swallows from Capistrano, they come.
The occasion is SIMBANG GABI: a series of masses at dawn taking place in the Filipino Diaspora for nine days every December to commemorate Advent in Christendom in anticipation of the birth of Christ. The tradition of Simbang Gabi brings out the Filipino community regardless of whether it is being held at 7:30 in the evening to accommodate those who can only make it after office hours, or on mornings before dawn to replicate the homeland tradition.
The voices at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Clarendon, Virginia fill the rafters.
Ama Namin, sumasalangit Ka
Sambahin ang Ngalan Mo
Mapasamin ang kaharian Mo
Sundin ang loob Mo
Dito sa lupa para ng sa langit
Bigyan mo po kami ngayon
Ng aming kakanin sa araw araw
At patawarin mo kami sa aming mga sala
Para nang pagpapatawad namin
Sa nagkasala sa amin.
At huwag mo kaming ipahintulot sa tukso
At iadya mo kami sa lahat ng masama.
These voices sing the Our Father in perfect Tagalog. They are not the sons and daughters, grandchildren, or nephews and nieces of Filipinos. They are the Americans who, year after year, have eagerly mastered the Mass in Pilipino as well as the musical compositions of Fr. Manoling Francisco, S.J. Jamie Sample, choir director at the piano leads the congregation in a rousing Purihin Ang Panginoon! She is of Irish descent. Sometimes we hear her above Jandi Arboleda, who from Day One, undid our inflexible Americanized tongues to tackle the syllabic breaks like native Filipinos.
Simbang Gabi stays with me till March of the following year. I sing my Tagalog prayers in the shower. The traditional breakfast camaraderie is probably the raw motivation that rouses me out of bed. At no other time of the year am I more achingly aware of my spiritual being than during these December Times when I am most Filipino.