Among Catholic Filipinos, one of the most-beloved and much-awaited religious events after the festivities of Holy Week are the nine consecutive pre-Christmas dawn Masses known as Simbang Gabi (Night Mass), which traditionally start on December 16.
This tradition originated in Mexico when, in 1587, Fray Diego de Soria, prior of the convent of San Agustin Acolman, petitioned the Pope for permission to hold Christmastide Masses outdoors because the church could not accommodate all the people who attended the dawn services. After the request was granted, these Masses came to be known as Misa de Aguinaldo (Mass of the Gift).
In the sixteenth century, Pope Sixtus V decreed that these pre-dawn Masses be held in the Philippines starting every December 16. This Novena of Masses expressed the sentiments of the people towards Mary, and the readings, prayers and chants of Simbang Gabi reflected the celebration of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Father’s eternal word, the fruit of Mary’s womb. These Masses were celebrated in the early morning hours, mainly because most Filipinos at the time were mostly farmers or fishermen who either began or ended their day at dawn.
After Mass, people greet their parents and older relatives with a mano (customary greeting by bringing the elder’s hand to the forehead as a sign of respect). Then they share a light merienda (snack), which consists of typical Simbang Gabi fare like hot salabat (ginger tea), bibingka (rice cakes) or puto bumbong (finger-shaped violet-coloured glutinous rice steamed in banana leaves and served with sugar and grated coconut).
Simbang Gabi ends on Christmas Eve with Midnight Mass, known as the Misa de Gallo (Mass of the Rooster), after which the families will gather together for a hearty post-midnight meal called Noche Buena. This feast gathers together all members of the family to offer gifts to each other and to pay respect to their elders.
The Archdiocese of Manila has a page dedicated to the Simbang Gabi, which you may read by clicking here. Why is it that Filipinos, both in the Philippines and abroad, have continued with this tradition that started in the mid-nineteenth century?
Simbang Gabi has become one of the most popular traditions in the country. But it is not just a tradition that is celebrated because we need to do so. It is a significant moment not only because it strengthens relationships among family members but also because it is the time where our faith is intensified. This is the time where we mostly feel the presence of the Lord because it is the spiritual preparation for Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ. It does not matter if one has the stamina to complete the novena or not, what really matters is what is inside the heart. The blessing does not depend on the number of mass attended, but what is important is the disposition of the person who receives the Lord’s blessing.This tradition has been brought to the United States and all over the world wherever Filipinos live. Here in central North Carolina, this tradition has been on-going for the past eight years. We don't do the entire Novena of Masses, but will be celebrating one Mass on Friday, December 17 at Immaculate Conception Church, with a Mass to take place at 7:00 p.m. in the church, followed by a reception in the gymnasium featuring typical Simbang Gabi fare. All are welcome to attend.
I will end this post with the Collect that is prayed during the first of the nine Novena Masses. May you all continue to have a Blessed Advent.
Let your tireless grace accompany us, Lord God, let it go before us and follow after, that in union with the Blessed Virgin Mary, we who long for the coming of your Son may be sustained by your love in this life and in the life to come. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.