Written by: Maine Dela Cruz
Christmas is in the air in the Philippines as the “-ber” months begin to unravel. According to reports, Filipinos celebrate Christmas for the longest period of time than any country on Earth. Although Advent begins in the final week of November, Filipinos begin playing Christmas music and displaying Christmas decorations as early as September.
While there are still online masses, thanks to fiber internet, unlike the previous year, churches have opened their doors to a restricted number of churchgoers in accordance with government-issued health guidelines.
What is this Filipino Christmas tradition anyway that we have come to celebrate for many centuries? How has it changed throughout the years especially now that we are in the midst of the pandemic?
Read on to find out.
What is Simbang Gabi?
Simbang Gabi (Filipino for “Night Mass”) is largely a Filipino advent tradition honoring the blessed Virgin Mary among Filipino Roman Catholics. They join her and follow her for nine days as she prepares for her son’s birth. There are nine dawn Masses in Puerto Rico called Misa de Aguinaldo, which is similar to the nine dawn Masses that happen before Christmas.
This Filipino advent tradition happens every day from December 16 to 24, but it happens at different times. In some places, the pre-dawn mass starts at 3 a.m., while in others, it starts around 5 a.m. The service is renamed Misa de Gallo (Spanish for “Rooster’s Mass”) on the final day of the Simbang Gabi, which is Christmas Eve. It plays a significant significance in Filipino culture.
History of Simbang Gabi in the Philippines
Simbang Gabi began in 1587, when Fray Diego de Soria, superior of the Convent of San Agustin Acolam, petitioned the Vatican for permission to offer Christmas Masses for farmers who would labor early in the fields.
Pope Sixtus V decreed in the 16th century that morning Masses be celebrated in the Philippines from Dec. 16 to Dec. 24 to allow farmers to attend Mass before heading to the fields.
The First Plenary Council of the Philippines petitioned the Vatican in 1953 to continue with Simbang Gabi. The petition was granted by the Papal Indult.
Agricultural practices during the Spanish era
The Philippines is a rice, coconut, and sugarcane-growing country. Numerous tenant farmers (also referred to as sacadas, campesinos, and casamacs) labored all day with only a little respite at midday, when the heat was at its greatest. Farmers worked long hours and budgeted their time in dread of the local encargado, who handled land for the Spanish feudal lord or encomendero/hacendero.
Between the planting and harvest seasons, indigenous are forced to endure a pause in the corvée. Those who were old enough to perform physical labor were gathered under the tributo system, which required males to work for free on construction projects for the Spanish colonial administration. Women were also responsible for caring for their vegetable gardens (tumana) and working as home servants for the affluent.
When the Christmas season began, it was normal to offer novenas in the evenings, but the priests recognized that the faithful would attend despite their exhaustion from the day. As a compromise, the clergy began saying early morning masses in the morning before people went out to work the field.
During the Spanish and early American periods, parishioners brought nothing more than bags of rice, fruits and vegetables, and fresh eggs to Mass. Following the ceremony, the Church would distribute the fruits to the congregation.
After Mass, Filipinos purchase and consume festive dishes provided in the graveyard. Bibingka (rice cakes fried on both sides) and puto bumbong (steamed purple rice pastries seasoned with butter, shredded coconut, and brown sugar) are popular and are frequently served with tsokolate (hot chocolate made with local cacao) or salabát (ginger tea).
Today, parishioners may purchase local specialties on the church grounds. Puto bumbóng, bibingka, suman, and other rice-based foods are all freshly prepared on-site. Children are sold latik and yema, while adults can purchase uraró (arrowroot), barquillos, lengua de gato, and otap (ladyfingers). Kape Barako (a very strong coffee cultivated in Batangas), hot tsokolate, or salabat are the most popular beverages, while soups such as arróz caldo (rice and chicken porridge) and papait (goat bile stew from the Ilocos area) are also available.
Rice-based dishes were traditionally offered to farmers to satisfy their bellies, as rice is a relatively inexpensive and primary staple. The pastries were packed with carbohydrates, which colonial Filipinos required for work in the rice farms and sugar mills.
How Filipino Catholics celebrate Simbang Gabi today
While some of the current Simbang Gabi practices have remained, some traditions have changed over time. Here’s how Filipinos celebrate Simbang Gabi today:
1. Waking up way too early
The Mass often begins around 4 a.m. Pope Sixtus V commanded that Mass be sung before daybreak, as it was harvest season, and farmers needed to be in their fields immediately following the service. Today, church bells are ringing or playing traditional Christmas songs as early as 3 a.m. to welcome churchgoers. Early morning mass is possibly the only moment in the world when most Filipinos would want to get up early in order to avoid missing any scheduled mass.
2. Wearing thick-clothed clothes
Our nation is often hot or humid due to our geographical position. Nonetheless, when December arrives and you’re out for a midnight stroll to church, we pull out our coziest gear to combat the cold morning air.
3. Evening masses
Some churches also hold evening celebrations of Simbang Gabi from the 15th through the 23rd of December. Often referred to as “anticipated Simbang Gabi” due to the fact that Vigil or Anticipated Masses are only valid on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, these are performed predominantly in metropolitan areas. However, these Masses employ the propers and readings prescribed for the day. Although it is permitted in some parishes, “anticipation” of the propers and readings for the following day is not.
4. Complete attendance grants wishes
For others, the sacrifice of attending pre-dawn Masses equates to a panata, an oath of fealty taken in the hope or anticipation that one’s prayers would be granted by the infant Jesus. Panata petitions ranged from the spiritual to the material, from wishes for peace and reconciliation to protection against natural disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes, to good health or healing, completion of studies or board exams, obtaining a good job locally or internationally, or even acquiring a house.
5. Lighting of lanterns
In the same way that people in Spain are lighting small oil lamps on Christmas Eve, people in the Philippines decorate their homes with paról, which are colorful star-shaped lanterns. A lot of people think that these were used by worshippers to help them get to church at night. They are also thought to have been used as a symbol for the Star of Bethlehem. Paróls are still popular Christmas decorations in the Philippines, and they are as well-known and symbolic as Christmas trees in the West.
6. Simbang gabi in malls
Simbang Gabi is frequently observed at shopping malls, typically in open areas. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle advised against holding Mass in shopping malls unless the mall had its own chapel.
7. The use of purple
White is the liturgical color reserved for Masses said during the novena; violet is reserved for all other Masses offered throughout the day, as these are still regarded to be part of the Advent season.
8. Re-enactment of the nativity scene
The nativity scene, or Belen, is shown in anticipation of the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth. It depicts Jesus as a newborn in a manger beside Mother Mary and Saint Joseph. Shepherds and farm animals coexist. The Belen’s whole narrative includes the three wise men delivering their gifts to the newborn Jesus and the Bethlehem star that led them on their journey.
9. Virtual mass
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has issued Simbang Gabi rules that adhere to IATF norms for mass congregations. They’ve expanded their offerings to include more Mass celebrations and online timetables. Christmas Vigil Masses may begin as early as 6 p.m.
10. More people in churches than last year
This is the Philippines’sSecond Simbang Gabi during the COVID-19 pandemic but more people are attending churches as restrictions have been eased. Churches were nearly empty last year due to COVID-19 restrictions during the observance of the custom.
11. Churches not in full capacity
Under the Philippines’ current quarantine classification, Alert Level 2, churches can currently accommodate 50% of their seating capacity indoors and 70% outside. This is in contrast to the 30% seating capacity formerly permitted in churches in regions subject to broad community quarantine, such as Metro Manila.
12. Kakanin after mass
Of course, who would forget about after-mass food? For many years, Agape meals following Mass were frequently sponsored by an individual family or group of families, an organization (such as an association), or a firm. Local delicacies included bibingka, a clay pot-cooked rice cake, puto, puto bumbong, a rice roll made from purple rice, kutsinta, biko, and pan de sal or arroz caldo porridge, as well as a variety of rice cakes. This was a time of year when many of these delicacies required a lot of time and effort.
The Reason for Celebrating Simbang Gabi
While Simbang Gabi is a cultural custom, it is also a spiritual preparation for Christmas and the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth. If you complete all nine sunrise services, most people think your requests will be granted by the Lord if you pray for them enough times.
Simbang Gabi is also celebrated by Filipino Catholics residing outside of the Philippines. Simbang Gabi, regardless of how or when it is celebrated, is a powerful indicator of the Catholicism of the Filipino people.
Bishop Broderick Pabillo, of the Apostolic Vicariate of Taytay, said in his invitation to Filipinos to take part in Simbang Gabi: “Let us receive Holy Communion with our hearts filled with hope for our safety amid this crisis.”
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Filipinos are very religious, and many people usually attend holy masses. However, despite the importance of faith and devotion, our primary concern must always be our own safety. And to do everything we can to ensure the safety of both ourselves and others around us. Make sure to follow and observe social distancing guidelines. Most importantly, wear a face mask and distance yourself from others by at least one meter if you intend to attend church.
Meanwhile, as much as possible, Catholic faithful restrained by poor health from physically attending Simbang Gabi may join the dawn mass online in the comfort of their homes. Virtual Simbang Gabi would enable the elderly, the sick, as well as minors to join the traditional dawn mass.
With the growing threat of COVID-19’s Omicron variant, the vulnerable ones, especially those with pre-existing medical disorders, should be extremely cautious. Thanks to the advent of technology, celebrating Simbang Gabi is possible as long as you are connected online through fiber internet or mobile data. Today, masses can be streamed on Facebook and YouTube, and to make this possible, you need a dependable internet provider in the Philippines.
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