Family reflects on Advent traditions from the Philippines

Francesca To, holding her citizenship document, poses with her family and the judge who presided at her naturalization ceremony this past spring in Des Moines. Her husband, Richard, far left, also became a U.S. citizen this past spring in a separate ceremony. Also pictured are the couple’s three children, Raphael, 18, Matthew, 16, and Sophia, 12.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

Her family’s favorite Filipino Advent tradition is “Simbang Gabi,” which translates in English to “night Mass,” says Francesca To of Divine Mercy Parish, Burlington-West Burlington.

“For the nine days preceding Christmas, parishes hold a novena of Masses very early in the morning, anywhere from 4 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. The Mass is often followed by a light breakfast,” Francesca says. “The sequence of readings and Gospels on those nine days is such wonderful preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ, and the breakfast afterward is a great way to build a spirit of community. While we did not always make all nine days (our children were quite young then), we would take them to as many of the Masses as we could. They still have fond memories of Simbang Gabi and the hot chocolate and rice cakes that followed.”

Francesca and her husband, Richard, an interventional cardiologist at Great River Medical Center in West Burlington, were born and raised in the Philippines and met in 1994 during medical school. Each came to the United States separately for further training after medical school. They married in September 2000 in the Philippines, where most of their family and friends live.


“I was a pediatric resident and he was a cardiology fellow at the time so we got married during our two-week vacation. After we completed our training in 2004, we moved our little family back to the Philippines. By then, Richard had lived in the United States for eight years and me for six years. We moved back in 2011 and have been here eight years.”

Their little family includes three children — Raphael, 18, and Matthew, 16, who were born in the United States, and Sophia, 12, who was born in the Philippines. The older children, especially, remember the Advent traditions they experienced there.

“In the Philippines, caroling is a popular way to raise funds for church and social causes while spreading Christmas cheer,” says Francesca, who now serves on the Diocese of Davenport’s Vision 20/20 Steering Committee and is active in her parish.

“Groups will come to your home and sing a number of carols (eight to 10, essentially a private concert) in exchange for a small meal and a charitable contribution. A single group could visit three or even more homes in one evening. It is not really something we do here, but my children have taken to dressing up as carolers during Halloween and will sing a couple of songs to our neighbors!”

Almost every Filipino home features a Nativity scene. Homes and establishments also decorate with “parols,” star-shaped lanterns made to symbolize the star that guided the Three Kings to the manger. Since the To family has not found an authentic parol, they top their tree with a miniature version.

“Spending time with extended family is also an Advent and Christmas tradition in the Philippines,” Francesca says. “While most of our family lives in the Philippines, one or two of them usually make their way to Iowa to join us for the holiday.”

Their traditions in Burlington are much simpler. “We put up our Nativity scene at the very beginning of Advent and keep it at the center of our home as a reminder of what Christmas is truly about, Francesca says. “During the season, we participate in various giving campaigns in our parish, at school and in our local community.”

The family has attempted some other traditions, not always successfully! “Last year, we decided to do a family Giving Manger. We set an empty manger in our family room and the idea was to put in a piece of straw for every good/kind deed you did during the season. The goal was to have the manger filled with straw in time for the birth of the Baby Jesus. Our youngest, who was then 11, enjoyed the activity, but our oldest, then 17, argued that God sees our good deeds and knows our hearts, and claiming credit for them — ‘tallying them up’ even in the form of pieces of straw defeats the purpose of ‘selfless’ acts,” Francesca says. “Needless to say, we are not doing that again this year.”

Her family chose the United States as their permanent home after a long period of prayer and discernment. “Work was incredibly busy for both of us and our little family was growing. We were looking/hoping/praying for a quieter environment and a simpler life where we could spend time together as a family and raise our children as active Catholics and active participants in the community.”

Richard was invited to interview for a position at the hospital in West Burlington. He and Francesca had other practice opportunities at bigger cities at the time but felt compelled to visit. “This was despite the fact that we had not previously been to Iowa and only knew two people in Burlington. The rest is history.”

“While the Philippines will always be our first home, we chose the United States as our present/permanent home,” Francesca says. “We feel it is important to establish roots and fully participate in our community, which one can really only do as a citizen. I grew up with a strong sense of social obligation and it is important to us that our children actively participate in the community as well. I feel that we Catholics are called to serve and lead wherever and whenever we can .… As naturalized citizens, it is easier to plan for our future and the future of our children.”

Earlier this spring, Richard and Francesca became naturalized citizens in separate ceremonies. The magistrate who officiated at Francesca’s ceremony in Des Moines spoke about her own family’s immigration story and “encouraged each of us to tell our stories to our children to keep those stories alive. She reminded us that every American family save for Native Americans has an immigration story. She also encouraged us to keep our native languages alive, to keep alive the diversity that built the United States and that is the American story.”

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