A FILIPINO TRADITION SINCE 1668 – Crowds expected for Simbang Gabi


Starting today, the Filipino Catholic community, led by the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT), is holding the Simbang Gabi (Dawn Masses) in Macau, an ancient religious tradition introduced in the Philippines by the Spaniards.

From Dec 16-24, the Masses honoring the Blessed Mother and preparing for Christ’s birth will be at 5:30 AM in St Lawrence’s Church. For those who cannot make it to the dawn Masses, Simbang Gabi will be celebrated at 8:30 PM from Dec 15-23 in St Joseph’s Seminary Chapel.

“The importance of this festivity to us, Filipinos, is that first of all it prepares us for the celebration of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord,” Fr Alejandre Vergara, SOLT, told us. “This is the time to unite ourselves with one another to celebrate the love of God for all of us. This is a kind of thanksgiving to God for all the graces and blessings that we received especially for the gift of Jesus who was born for us,” he added.

Moreover he said, “There is an atmosphere of joy that motivates us to keep and hold on to our faith that we may persevere in our lives.” This celebration gives also hope to the faithful, he said, which is why many are wishing for the best to come in their lives when they have finished the nine-day celebration.

The Simbang Gabi (literally “Night Mass”) is also known as “Misa de Gallo,” a term going back to the times of Pope Sixtus III (432-440) who instituted in Rome the practice of a midnight Christmas Mass “ad galli cantum” (“at cockcrow”) to anticipate the Lord’s birth.

But the practice of a novena of Masses before Christmas apparently began in Mexico. In 1587, Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590) gave Augustinians in the Americas permission to celebrate the Misa de Gallo on the nine days leading up to Christmas. Pope Sixtus V added the following intentions to the Mass: (1) glorification and exaltation of the Holy Mother Church; (2) propagation of the Holy Catholic Faith; and (3) preservation of the newly baptized natives in the True Faith. The Masses also became known as Misa de Aguinaldo.

The tradition was carried on to the Philippines by the missionaries and proved to be a very effective way of evangelizing. Historians say that the first Simbang Gabi in the Philippines began in 1668.

The pre-dawn timing afforded farmers time to attend the Mass before going to work. Evening Masses were difficult for them as they were exhausted at the end of a day of toil. For fishermen, they could attend the Mass after bringing in their catch before dawn. At the end of the Mass, the participants partook of rich delicacies which prepared them for work. This tradition of early dawn Masses and feasting on native delicacies has been handed down to the present.

The religious nature of the Simbang Gabi involves the sacrifice of rising early and attending Mass. Many believe that the novena can obtain for them favors from the Child Jesus. But aside from this, it also has become a time for family bonding, for meeting friends, and of course, for taking a sumptuous early breakfast in a festive atmosphere.

So popular is this tradition that it has become part of Filipino culture. Wherever Filipinos go, they will try to organize the novena Masses, adapting the time to the local circumstances. Just to cite one example, Catholic News Service reported last year: “Since 1986, Filipino Catholics have organized an annual Simbang Gabi novena throughout the Archdiocese of Chicago. Every novena, which takes 12 months to plan, becomes more popular, with an average of 45,000 people attending over the nine days. Six percent of the archdiocese’s population is Asian, and many of those are Filipinos.”

“This year,” the report continued, “66 churches in all parts of the archdiocese will participate in Simbang Gabi. Unlike in the Philippines, where the novena Masses are held at dawn, the Masses in Chicago are held in the evening. Children usually carry parols [Filipino Christmas lanterns] in opening processions during the service, and many people wear traditional Filipino clothing. One of the highlights of the novena follows Mass when participants partake of traditional Filipino food.”

Simbang Gabi is a privilege given to the Catholic Church in the Philippines. Fr Virgilio Hernandez writes: “The First Plenary Council of the Philippines, in 1953, applied for a papal indult under the following conditions: ‘On the nine days preceding the Nativity of our Lord, i.e., from December 16 to 24, the solemn votive Mass Rorate Coeli Desuper is sung especially in parish and convent churches, but only once a day with great solemnity and with a big attendance of the faithful’ [Acta et Decreta Primi Concilii Plenarii Ins. Phil., Manilae, 1953, n. 356; J Ylla, OP, Indultos y Privilegios de Filipinas, UST Press, 1940, p. 24].

“With the promulgation of the 1960 Code of Rubrics, the Philippine Hierarchy, under its president Archbishop Julio Rosales of Cebu, wasted no time and decided to elevate in the same year to the Holy Father a suppliant letter ‘humbly asking that, in spite of the promulgation of the new Code of Rubrics, and for as long as the same grave reason, namely the conservation of the Faith [in the Philippines] continued, the Aguinaldo Masses be allowed to be sung for nine days preceding the Nativity’ [Cf Ibid, pp 470-471.] On 24 March 1961, the petition was granted for a period of five years.”

White vestments are used in a Simbang Gabi Mass, but purple is used for any other Masses said during the day, as these are still considered part of the Advent season.



With Fr José Mario O Mandía

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