Christmas, Philippine style, is replete with so many traditions that may have their origin in the West, but have been adapted to fit the temperament of the Filipinos. One such tradition is the Simbang Gabi, which in English literary means “evening Mass.”
Simbang Gabi is the nine-day series of daily Masses attended by Filipinos as we prepare for the coming of the Messiah. The Masses are celebrated in the pre-dawn hours on each of the nine days before Christmas, starting in the early morning of December 16.
The original Spanish name for this nine-day series of daily Masses is “Misa de Gallo.” The phrase, which when translated means “Mass of the rooster,” offers some insight into why the nine-day masses are celebrated before dawn or before the roosters crow at around 3:30 in the morning.
Every December 16, Church bells in every parish in the Philippines ring before dawn to remind the people to get out of bed and go to Church. Most Churches are decorated with beautiful and lighted lanterns. Outside the Church are colorful streamers symbolizing the joyous mood of the season of Advent.
After the Mass, the people are ready to celebrate. They congregate outside the church as local entrepreneurs await the churchgoers to buy puto bombong (rice cake) and other native delicacies. Simbang Gabi is a Filipino tradition that has existed for hundreds of years since the Spanish time.
As a child growing up in the Philippines, I did not see any profound religious significance in the Simbang Gabi. Perhaps because of my innocence, I looked at Simbang Gabi as more of a social opportunity to meet friends in Church and enjoy their camaraderie. Young couples in love attend Simbang Gabi to deepen their relationships. But, for whatever reason, there was always excitement in waking up early in the morning and breathing the morning breeze as my family walked to Church.
But as I grew older, I realized that Simbang Gabi is really an expression of one’s Faith – Faith that is currently being tested by the uncertainties of the future. For nine days, people sacrifice to wake up early in the morning, sometimes cold and raining, to go Church and spiritually prepare their hearts for the coming of the Messiah. Beyond the noise, the eating and the singing, people long for the Messiah and they trust that this Messiah is the only One who can give them hope. This profound religious experience definitely calls for a celebration.
Over the years, Filipinos all over the world have creatively adapted the celebration of Simbang Gabi. In my Seattle’s parish where there are many Filipinos, Simbang Gabi has taken a totally different form. There are no nine-day dawn Masses, but just one Mass on a Saturday before Christmas and it is dubbed Simbang Gabi. The Mass is in the evening and obviously there are no roosters that crow.
The shape or the form that Simbang Gabi is celebrated in my parish is really insignificant. What is important is that the Filipinos everywhere continue to keep alive the spirit and the tradition of welcoming the Messiah with much anticipation and joy.
On a more personal note, this is the reason why Simbang Gabi continues to have a special place in my heart. It reminds me of my own journey in the Church, and how my Faith gives meaning and depth to my being a Filipino Catholic.