Simbang Gabi of Filipino Catholics: a unique experience

Christmas supposedly starts on December 25 (that is, for Roman Catholics) and culminates on the Epiphany. Filipino Catholics, however, begin it on December 16 with Simbang Gabi or Dawn Masses.

Filipinos start their Christmas observance with the 9-day Novena Masses prior to Christmas Day. Called Simbang Gabi or Misa de Aguinaldo, it’s a reverential nine-dawn Masses that starts on December 16. Both the Roman Catholics and the Aglipayans observe it in deference to the Blessed Virgin Mary as they anticipate the birth of 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 this time, Filipinos adorn their homes with colorful star-shaped lanterns called parol. [In reality, though, Filipinos start decorating their houses as early as September 1 – obviously influenced by commercialism]

Many of the parols are personally hand-crafted according to the owner’s desire. Commercial parols also abound, but they’re more expensive than the home-made ones. The parol is traditionally believed to serve as an illumination for the parishioners in making their way to the church during the dawn masses.

According to common beliefs that if a parishioner who makes a wish and completes all nine dawns of the Simbang Gabi, their 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 get the greatest number of church-goers.

December 16 also marks the beginning of caroling. Children and adults alike would go from house to house singing Christmas carols in exchange for an amount of money or goodies. Many of the kids, however, start their caroling in the neighborhood as early as December 1 in order to collect as many goodies and coins for themselves.

Simbang Gabi culminates on December 24 or Christmas Eve.  Apart from the ninth-day Mass at dawn, one more Mass is celebrated shortly before midnight of December 24. It’s called the Misa de Gallo or Mass of the Gifts. In the past, the Misa de Gallo was celebrated at 12 midnight. But due to the noise and the dangers of getting hurt by fireworks, the church authorities decided to celebrate the Mass earlier.

As soon as families have gone home after the Misa de Gallo, they would gather together for the Nochebuena or the traditional Christmas Eve dinner. And, it’s not an ordinary dinner! Rather, it’s a feast of many local delicacies and conventional dishes. Tables are usually filled with lechon (roast pig), fried chicken, hamon, pancit, lumpia, fruit salad, spaghetti, queso de bola, and a whole lot more.

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History of Simbang Gabi

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 individuals alike would share different home-made traditional foods called kakanin and drinks, such as

  • bibingka (rice cake cooked in the clay stove)
  • puto
  • suman
  • palitaw
  • tsokolate (chocolate drink)
  • salabat (ginger tea)
  • kape (coffee)
  • …and many other regional delicacies

Traditionally, families prepare their own kakanin at home and share them with neighbors after the Mass. Today, however, ambulant vendors make all these kakanin and delicacies readily available at the church grounds, allowing parishioners easy access.

The reason that most of the kakanin were traditionally made of rice or carbohydrates was to fill the farmers’ stomach before they proceeded to their farms.

The most noteworthy trait among Filipinos is their resilience and positive attitude. No matter how tragic the challenges they may face, they can manage to smile, help each other, and celebrate Christmas with hope in their hearts. And that is beautifully captured in this video (below) produced by one of the national TV networks in the country.  Take note of the parol, too!

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