One December dawn in the 1700s, a Spanish friar gathered his farmers and taught them to say a prayer of thanks to God for their generous harvest that year and, hopefully, in the years to come.
Historical records showed that this was the birth of Simbang Gabi, the Filipino Christmas tradition that the young and the old celebrate first thing in the morning for nine straight days in the run-up to Christmas Day.
Simbang Gabi traces its roots to Catholic-dominated countries like Spain and Mexico.
According to the book, “Pasko!: The Philippine Christmas,” by Reynaldo Alejandro and Marla Chorengel, the farmers followed the friar since they were used to early morning sacrifices and rituals to their pagan gods before they did their fieldwork.
The farmers were asked to sing during Mass, which would be followed by a simple breakfast offered by the friar. Celebrating the dawn Mass every morning was a mixture of pagan custom and Catholic rites.
Thus, the missionaries felt it would be a practical and effective means of spreading Catholicism among the natives.
Darkness of dawn
But there are other versions in historical records of the beginnings of Simbang Gabi, also known as “Misa de Gallo” or Mass of the Rooster.
Historical researcher Jesson Gonzaga Allerite, in an online article of the Catholics Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), said that based on historical accounts, Mass was forbidden to be said during nighttime.
Thus, “these Masses were offered in the darkness of dawn amid the blaze of many lighted candles, especially for farmers and workmen who had to labor afterwards,” according to that account.
‘Misa de Aguinaldo’
These Masses, lit only by candelight, are also called “Misa Aurea” or the golden Mass, believed to be a precursor of the “Misa de Aguinaldo” in Spain, the Americas and the Philippines.
Another story, told in 2012 by Fr. Gennie Diwa, head of the office of liturgy of the Archdiocese of Manila, was that Simbang Gabi was brought by Catholic missionaries from Mexico. He said Mexican Catholics at that time began holding early dawn Masses in honor of the Virgin Mary before going out to till their fields at Christmastime.
More popular than Easter
Missionaries brought the practice to the Philippines and Filipinos “enthusiastically adopted it,” adding their own flavor.
“From my research, it was typically Mexican. They held it at dawn because people wake up early in the morning before they do their farming. It was a way to start the day for nine days in honor of the Blessed Mother and Christmas,” Diwa said.
“I don’t think the Mexicans still celebrate it … but it became more popular in the Philippines. It was easily accepted here because although Easter is supposed to be the greatest feast day of the Church, for Filipinos, Christmas in its form and preparation is more popular than Easter,” Diwa said.
Filipino flavor added
These Masses were usually held in a solemn manner but the Filipinos secured a permission from the Vatican to allow Simbang Gabi in the Philippines to be festive.
In his manuscript titled “The history of the Misa de Aguinaldo: From Spain to the Philippine Islands,” Allerite said that Masses had to be stopped due to an order from the Sacred Congregation of Rites, a regulator of liturgical celebrations of the Roman Church, because of the Filipinos’ habit of singing Christmas carols in the vernacular. Such singing was then prohibited, except for the entrance and recessional songs.
“The wording of the order was very severe. [The practice was described as] along the lines of ‘perversion of doctrine,’” said Allerite in his research.
Filipinos added “local flavor” through practices like panunuluyan (dramatization of the Holy Family’s search for an inn), singing villancico (Spanish upbeat Church songs) and the cooking of Christmas delicacies like puto bumbong and bibingka.
In the Philippines, the festive atmosphere of the after-prayer gatherings varies in different provinces, with Muslim, Chinese, Mexican, European or American influences.
In Bicol, carolers dressed as shepherds appear as soon as the Simbang Gabi starts. They sing villacincos to the beat of Muslim gongs, Spanish guitars and other string instruments.
In Bohol, the carolers, as Joseph, Mary and innkeepers, participate in a nine-day pageant called “ige-ige”—derived from the word “igehan”—meaning to drive somebody out from one’s house. This begins simultaneously with the first dawn Mass.
In Cebu, the dawn Mass starts with carolers dressed up like jungle warriors or city clowns performing acrobatic stunts in the streets. Their faces are smudged with black dye.
In Mindanao and some remote areas, however, dawn Masses are celebrated without a priest. Introduced by the CBCP five years ago, it was the prelates’ way of reaching out to Catholics who could hardly be accommodated for lack of clerics.
In US, too
The practice of Simbang Gabi, as well as decorating lanterns, has been brought overseas to non-Catholic nations, such as the United States and Singapore, where a high number of Filipino migrants live.
In Seattle, Simbang Gabi is considered a sacred ritual of lights symbolized by the “parol” (lantern). In December 1997, the archbishop of Seattle celebrated the first Simbang Gabi and was so moved by the experience that he has since encouraged the entire archdiocese to participate.
From ‘merienda’ to fiesta
But the Masses are held at night, due to busy mornings and cold December nights, followed by a reception, ranging from a simple merienda to an extravagant fiesta, with cultural entertainment.
Two years later, the first novena Mass was celebrated in Singapore, which was also held at night. The Filipino language was then used since only Filipinos were in attendance. English was later used after more foreigners began participating.
By Kathleen de Villa, Inquirer Research