Simbang Gabi: Reflecting on Christ’s Birth through Dawn Masses

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Hannah A. Papasin
Writer. Critic. Professor. She started writing since primary school and now has two published textbooks on communication. A film buff, she's a Communication, Media Literacy and Journalism Professor of the University of St. La Salle-Bacolod, and has a Master's Degree in English.

We all have our stories of Simbang Gabi.

You know, that nine-day devotional mass usually held before sunrise, at the time where nights are longer and therefore colder, and in the case of the Philippines, where Christmas is celebrated during the first –ber month.

"The Bamboo Organ Church or the St. Joseph Parish Church of Las Piñas City in the Philippines during "Simbang Gabi" or Night Mass on Christmas eve. Photo was part of Schadow1 Expeditions coverage of Las Piñas during Christmas season." by Ervin Malicdem is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
“The Bamboo Organ Church or the St. Joseph Parish Church of Las Piñas City in the Philippines during “Simbang Gabi” or Night Mass on Christmas eve. Photo was part of Schadow1 Expeditions coverage of Las Piñas during Christmas season.” by Ervin Malicdem is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Mine are more memories than stories – of young people bundled up in jackets, huddled together at the back of the Church pretending to listen but really making full use of the one hour to steal moments with their romantic love interests, of smells of sticky puto bumbong in lighted carts, or of cheap yellow pancakes that look like circular towels, smeared with margarine and smothered in granulated sugar.

In a Catholic country like the Philippines, the Simbang Gabi is a grand tradition of Churches packed by the faithful and those pretending to be faithful (really an excuse to go out).

But, what really are its origins?

The website for the Pastoral Liturgy traces the roots of holding a nine-day devotional mass to the 16th century, linking the practice to Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who reportedly suggested that prayers be said to prepare for Christmas.

But the apocryphal sources trace the roots of the first pre-dawn mass in Mexico in 1587 when the friar Diego de Soria asked the Pope to allow the holding the mass outdoors to accommodate all the people who wanted to attend mass but could not because of the crowded venue.

The Pastoral Liturgy said de Soria “introduced this practice to the indigenous people of Mexico as a means for evangelization”.

The name Misa de Gallo is translated to “Mass of the Rooster”, as the devotional is held supposedly at the first cock’s crow. 

That could well be purely apocryphal, but the name stuck, and now in the Philippines the term is interchanged with Simbang Gabi, or Aguinaldo (Gift) Mass.

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