It’s that time of the year again when everyone back home in the Philippines gathers at churches for a nine-night mass leading to Christmas Eve, when people crowd at supermarkets to get all that they need for noche buena, and when little kids gather around the Christmas tree in the living room to exchange gifts. No matter the situation — the COVID-19 pandemic or the recent typhoon Rai — Filipinos find ways to celebrate their biggest festivity of the year.
For an expatriate like me, the reality of Christmas hits differently. This “season to be jolly” is actually a season to be homesick. I haven’t spent Christmas with my family since 2014, and just when I thought I’d already gotten used to it, a single post on social media from friends or even just the first note of Jose Mari Chan’s A Perfect Christmas reminds me that I am, sadly, 1,886 kilometers away from home.
But like many other Catholic expats living in Ho Chi Minh City, there’s one place I know I’ll find solace, the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon. There are about seven million Catholics in Vietnam, where the predominant religion fuses Buddhism and folk beliefs. Today, Catholics represent only about 7% of the total population, but we’re a strong minority. And it’s evident within the walls of the massive basilica standing at the heart of Công xã Paris in District 1.
One of the most notable examples of French architecture in Ho Chi Minh, the church was built in the 1880s and was later conferred as a basilica, an honor given to church buildings distinguished by their antiquity or by their role as international centers of worship. Its distinct neo-Romanesque features — red-brick facade, stained glass windows, and two 58-meter towers containing six bronze bells — has been a favorite tourist attraction, with everyone wanting a selfie of a church that has withstood the test of time and the changes in its surroundings.
In 1959, the majestic four-meter statue of Our Lady of Peace was installed at the center of the garden in front of the basilica, adding solemnity to the area. The statue was a site of a
“miracle” in 2005, when people claimed it shed a tear. The church disproved the miracle, but such has become an important tale Vietnamese Catholics tell friends even up to this day.
Inside the 1200-seater religious institution are sophisticated altars and small statues made of white stone, rows of towering pillars, and that remarkable sense of warmth and peace — as if welcoming whoever enters it, Catholic or not.
As the Notre Dame Basilica goes into its third renovation since its completion 140 years ago, steel scaffoldings surround almost two-thirds of the monumental architecture. The renovation started in August 2017 and was supposed to be completed in mid-2020. But because of a shortage of funds and the lockdown restrictions imposed in the city, the project was put on hold. Despite steel bars covering its facade, the basilica remains as grand as ever.
A symbol of Christmas
A large nativity scene is set up in front of the basilica, depicting the birth of Jesus Christ — the reason for our celebration. A giant steel Christmas tree stands on the side. Inside the church are colorful wreaths and lanterns that give off the Christmas spirit.
For fellow Filipino expats Soki Frianeza and Jho Dela Cruz, the Notre Dame Cathedral has also become a home for their faith, making their lives as overseas workers more meaningful. Both serve as lectors at the basilica, along with dozens of other Filipinos who have become embedded in the local Catholic community for decades now.
“When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, it was a Sunday, so my cousin took me to Le Van Sy Church — that was the only church for the expat community at that time,” shares Jho, who hails from northern Luzon, Philippines. “From then on, I found comfort in knowing that I am in a good place, in a foreign country like Vietnam.” Jho started serving the basilica last year. She leads the holy rosary before the 9:30 Sunday morning mass — a practice originally initiated by Filipinos at the basilica — and then as a mass reader.
Soki, who works in the insurance industry, also spends a few hours on Sundays at the basilica. The mother of two has been active at church since she set foot in Vietnam a decade ago. She previously served as a lector at the Pastoral Center of the Archdiocese of Saigon, where she met her “sisters in Christ.” She would like her young kids to develop a strong religious foundation through catechism and by exposing them to different religious activities.
Besides being lectors, both have also recently become part of the International Catholic Community of Saigon (ICCS) choir at the Pastoral Center, singing every 6pm on Saturdays. Given the limitations and restrictions still implemented because of the pandemic, some of the original choir members can’t go to church yet.
Test of faith
The Catholic community in Vietnam has seen tremendous growth over the years — in numbers, and in public recognition. As more Catholic foreigners moved to the country, the Catholic population multiplied, and along with this, the new generation of Vietnamese was introduced to the Catholic faith.
Years ago, Catholic fellowships outside the Sunday mass weren’t widely accepted or permitted. The situation has improved over the decades, giving way to the increase in religious services and celebrations being recognized by the government. This has allowed Catholics in the country — locals and expats — to have more freedom in expressing their faith.
The bright lights hanging high on streets, the gigantic Christmas trees in offices and stores, the Christmas music reverberating in malls, and the myriad of Christmas promotions all signify how this important Catholic tradition has now become part of Vietnamese society.
“It’s amazing to see how Vietnam has increasingly adapted Christmas,” says Soki. "There are more shops selling Christmas-related items while malls and buildings set up their festive decorations as background for people to take pictures with. Pre-pandemic, we used to travel around Christmas time, and we have observed that aside from churches, even ordinary homes along the roads leading to Dalat and Mui Ne put up life-sized decorations of the nativity scene!”
The Filipino influence
Being one of the most active groups of the English-speaking congregation at the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon and of the Pastoral Center, Filipinos have also shared traditional practices to their new home. For example, the simbang gabi (night mass) or Misa de Aguinaldo (gift mass) held every night from December 16 to December 24, which is a major part of Christmas celebrations in the Philippines.
Back in the 1990s, Filipinos who wanted to observe the nine-day mass found themselves bumping into each other at the 5am daily Vietnamese mass at the Notre Dame Cathedral. It wasn’t until over a decade later that the Archdiocese was able to accommodate having a small English mass at the Pastoral Center.
“A few Filipino religious and a handful of Filipino laity then set on to share this wonderful tradition to compatriots and other English-speaking expatriates in the congregation,” Soki shares. “Vietnamese priests, who studied or spent time in the Philippines, were happy to see that their Filipino guests could continue observing the Christmas tradition here in Vietnam. Thanks to the support of our Vietnamese brethren, the Christmas novena tradition carried on.”
“It is a bit unfortunate that the COVID pandemic which continues to this very day, has made it impossible to celebrate masses as freely as before. We all look forward to a normalcy that’ll see this tradition continue to be shared,” Soki adds as a final point. “Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.”
Jho also practices gift-giving at work, even to non-Catholic colleagues in a manufacturing company in Ho Chi Minh City. “Christmas for Filipinos is about sharing. But even when I’m in a different country, I want to keep that alive.”
She’s right. This is what being a Filipino means; this is what being a Catholic means. Despite the heartbreaking fact that many of us Filipino Catholics in Vietnam will be marking the holidays away from our loved ones, we are connected by one faith, and by one reason to celebrate Christmas. And come December 25th, we all know where we’ll be.