Why and how do we practice Simbang Gabi ?
We Filipinos hold the record of having the longest Christmas celebration in the world. As soon as the ‘ber’ months come we start hearing Christmas songs in the radio and even in malls. These carols and revelries continue long, long after countries in other regions have tacked in their Christmas decorations in their attic. Many of us collect our Christmas decoration by the end of January when we are jolted by the realization that Valentines day is around the corner. We normally let the feast of the Sto. Nino pass first and say ‘Oh ok Christmas is over for this year’.
As early as the 17th century these early morning masses were already being observed and practiced in Spain. When the Spaniards came to the Philippines one of the good influences they left behind the Filipinos were these dawn masses before Christmas, which they called Misa de Aguinaldo and which we called Simbang Gabi. This tradition of early morning mass was originally meant to make it possible for farmers to attend the novena masses before they head to the fields for their days work. Fast forward today, the same still holds true. The dawn masses make it possible for office workers and school children to attend the 9 day Christmas novena before rushing to their offices or before their school bus come to pick them up.
Strictly speaking Christmas starts on 25 December, the days preceding that are still Advent. If you have keen eyes you will notice the priest still uses purple vestments, specifically the estola or stole ( the liturgical vestment worn by bishops, priest and deacons) during masses around that period. This means that there is no festivity yet. The mood is supposedly sombre because Jesus is not yet born. So it is just like other ordinary days.
However, in the Philippines, we priests were given special permission to wear white estola. But only during Simbang Gabi masses. This special permission was granted because we are saying novena masses in honour of Mama Mary the mother of Jesus Christ.
These masses are novena masses in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Expectant Mother of God, and in preparation of the nativity of our Lord.
Have you noticed in buses or waiting areas that there are signs reminding people to give preference to pregnant women? Do you recall how we make so much fuss over what our sister, daughter or female friend is eating, doing when they are pregnant? And we frown upon stories of women smoking and drinking alcohol during their pregnancy? These Christmas novena masses we have in honour of Mama Mary is our way of fussing over Mama Mary and excitedly waiting for the Baby Jesus.
This is the most important of all novenas we have in the Catholic faith. Why? Well if we have novenas for St Therese of the Child Jesus, we have novena for all the patron saints of our parishes, or our personal saints to whom we beg to pray for us to our Lord Jesus Christ, then the novena in preparation for the coming of Jesus is the most important of all novenas.
How Filipinos Practice it
If you would drive around Metro Manila or any province in the Philippines in the early morning hours from 16 to 24 December you would see many people walking in the streets. If you are in Metro Manila you might even encounter traffic jams outside churches.
If you are not a Filipino or if you have lived outside the Philippines and have somewhat forgotten the tradition you would wonder what those people are doing at the early hours of the morning. Well, they are attending ‘Simbang Gabi’.
It’s a tradition that we excitedly wait for and enjoy when it comes. Part of this tradition has been the eating of different kakanin (food goodies or sweetmeats), most specifically puto bumbong and hot chocolate after the mass, as the smell of these food treats wafts in the air.
For many this has been a practice and devotion. For others this is a time to bond with family and friends as they try to face the challenge of waking up in the cold mornings of December, endure a freezing shower (since we Filipinos would never go anywhere without hitting the shower first) just to complete the 9 early morning novena masses.
‘Simbang Gabi’ is counted as one of our oldest and most venerated tradition in the Philippines. It is also the most festive of all. If you remember during Holy week we are in a more somber mood. We don’t play lively music during masses because we are commemorating the death of Jesus. In contrast, the Christmas Novena masses or the simbang gabi commemorates and rejoices the advent of the baby Jesus, thus the mood is more festive. Because of the Simbang Gabi’s upbeat nature, joyful Christmas carols are sung and churches are decorated with cheery trimmings and ornaments.
The number of people attending these early morning masses has not at all declined it on the contrary has been increasing. In all my years as a priest I have seen people who never come near the door step of the church all the days of the year but would religiously complete all the 9 days of Simbang Gabi masses.
Though many of you have moved permanently to other countries we Filipinos didn’t fail to take with us this lovely tradition. Thus Simbang Gabi masses are celebrated in different cities of the world. Wherever there is a Filipino there would definitely be Simbang Gabi. In places where their priest is not a Filipino, the Filipino community successfully convince their priests to have these dawn masses.
The throng of people coming to churches enduring the cold mornings and the inconvenience of waking up so early in the morning; and the Filipinos who keep this tradition even now living in far away lands amaze me and makes me happy at the same time because I can see that in the midst of all the material distractions we have during this season many of us still see the reason why we have Christmas and why we have to pause and give time to God.
Christmas novena for those who cannot go to church
For those of you who do not have the opportunity to attend the simbang gabi like Teresa from Norway, you can pray this Christmas novena that was composed by an Italian priest, Rev. Charles Vachetta, C.M., in 1721.
Have a blessed Christmas everybody.
Remember God loves you!