Tomorrow, December 16, starts the official observance of Christmas season, which will last until the Epiphany, or during the commemoration of the Magi’s visit to the Child Jesus.
In the Philippines, the celebration commences with Misa de Aguinaldo or Simbang Gabi, a reverential nine-dawn Masses practiced by both the Roman Catholics and Aglipayans in deference to the Blessed Virgin Mary as they anticipate the birth of their Savior, Jesus Christ.
The liturgical importance of Christmas stems from the Season of Advent, the time when believers spiritually prepare and purify themselves to be worthy to receive the Child Jesus. Simbang Gabi, which literally means Night Mass, is actually done as early as 4 o’clock in the morning.
During the Christmas season, Filipinos adorn their homes with colorful star-shaped lanterns called parol. Many, if not most, of which are personally hand-crafted according to the owner’s desire. The parol is traditionally believed to serve as an illumination for the parishioners in making their way to the church. Also, during this period, children and adults alike would go from house to house singing Christmas carols in exchange for an amount of money or goodies.
Many Filipino Catholics believe that if a parishioner who makes a wish during the dawn Masses and is able to complete all nine dawns of the Simbang Gabi, his or her wish would come true. This has been a centuries-old belief that is still kept alive even up to the present. Many priests, however, observe that only the first and the ninth dawn of the Simbang Gabi seem to have the greatest number of church-goers.
Simbang Gabi culminates on December 24 or Christmas Eve, which is called the Misa de Gallo or Mass of the Gifts. Shortly after the Misa de Gallo, families gather together in their homes for the Nochebuena, or the traditional Christmas Eve dinner, where they feast on local delicacies and some conventional dishes, like lechon (or roast pig), fried chicken, hamon, pancit, lumpia, fruit salad, spaghetti, quezo de bola, and a lot more.
The history of Simbang Gabi in the Philippines can be traced back to 1669 during the early days of Christianity. Since the Christmas season was also a harvest period, it was customary to hold thanksgiving novenas in the evenings. But the priests noticed that, although still enthusiastic to participate in the Mass, their parishioners, especially farmers, were already tired after a day’s work. And so, the Spanish friars decided to begin the Mass very early in the morning, instead, to allow farmers to participate in it before they proceeded to their fields.
Since then, this important Christmas tradition became a distinct Philippine culture and recognized as a symbol of sharing. After each dawn Mass, Filipino families, and even individuals, would share different traditional Christmas foods and drinks, such as bibingka, or rice cake cooked in clay stove; puto; suman; tsokolate; salabat or ginger tea; kape (coffee) and; other regional delicacies.
The reason why most of the pastries were traditionally made of rice or carbohydrates was to fill the stomach of farmers before they proceeded to their farms. At present, however, other delicacies are prepared and readily available at the church’s premises for easy access to parishioners.