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Simbang Gabi in the Philippines: What Is This Filipino Tradition?

Simbang Gabi is a Filipino tradition that has been around for thousands of years, with generation after generation of Filipino families waking up in the wee hours of morning (or late night) to attend nine masses leading up to Christmas. Held from the 16th to the 24th of December, these nightly celebrations are considered to be forms of gratitude to God for giving us His only son. While the goal of Simbang Gabi in the Philippines has been passed down for years, its history is something that not a lot of Filipinos are familiar with. Dating back to the years of Spanish colonization, the Philippines has deeply ingrained this practice into the Filipino culture and the celebrations that our country’s citizens partake in during the holiday season.

The Historical Beginnings of Simbang Gabi in the Philippines

The early beginnings of Simbang Gabi can be traced back to the arrival of Magellan and the planting of the cross at Limasawa, Leyte. As the pope obligated the Spaniards to baptize and Christianize Filipinos, our early ancestors were exposed to the Christian doctrine. This is when Simbang Gabi was first introduced in the Philippines – to impress Filipino converts and concretize the importance of the birth of Jesus Christ. Another version says that the priests from the Spanish period agreed to hold the predawn Masses so that farmers could hear Mass before they set off to work in the fields.

With Simbang Gabi seamlessly being incorporated into the Filipinos’ daily waking patterns, the early Christians openly embraced the religious rite, and has now become an imperative holiday tradition in all parts of the country. The continuous church bells and the occasional marching band during the Christmas leadup also worked as a wake-up call for families around the churches.

Why Is Simbang Gabi Practiced?

Aside from its image as a deep-set tradition in Filipino holiday celebrations, why do we practice Simbang Gabi per se? Well, it all boils down to the unwavering faith of the Filipino people.

Whenever we attend Simbang Gabi and make the sacrifice of waking up very early in the morning, we could look at the gesture as our Aguinaldo, or gift to Christ, as a form of gratitude to Him for giving us His only son. Jesus Christ’s birth, which is the centerpiece of the entire Christmas tradition, is the ultimate gift that all of us have received.

In addition, history dictates that Simbang Gabi is also celebrated to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary as she carries the child Jesus. However, Pope Sixtus V included the following intentions: (1) glorification and exaltation of the Holy Mother Church; (2) propagation of the Holy Catholic Faith; and (3) preservation of the newly baptized natives in the True Faith.

Today, however, years after the Spanish colonization and after we’ve come to terms with our own multi-cultural background as a nation, Simbang Gabi is practiced “for the perseverance of the Filipino nation in the faith and the preservation of our holy religion in this part of the world.” The years’ worth of Simbang Gabi has also spawned some entertaining superstitions though – with some believing that wishes are granted if you complete the nine-night masses that comprise the Simbang Gabi. And to that, we say that there’s no harm in hoping for wishes to come true – especially if you have the spirit of Christmas at your back.

How Is Simbang Gabi Celebrated in the Philippines?

Much like how Misa de Aguinaldo is celebrated in Venezuela, Simbang Gabi is celebrated with a series of nine night masses celebrated before dawn, typically at 4 a.m., from the 15th of December to the night of Christmas Eve. Akin to novenas to saints, the faithful are enjoined to make petitions to the Child Jesus.

In urban places, anticipated Masses are now held at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. besides the regular dawn masses. The last Mass is held at 11 p.m. on the eve of December 24. After which, the family dines together. Young members of the family hold the right hand of elders and they press the back of the hand on their forehead as a sign of the love and respect, and say “Mano po.” The elders respond with “God bless you.”

Simbang Gabi Food to Relish During the Holidays

Aside from the night masses of Simbang Gabi, Filipinos also look forward to the special delicacies sold before the break of dawn – from the bright purple kakanin we call puto bumbong to the salted-egg topped rice flour cakes we call bibingka. Typically sold in churchyards as people start to trickle out the churches after Simbang Gabi, these delicacies have been part of years’ worth of holiday traditions, and it wouldn’t be Christmas in the Philippines without you watching puto bumbong being prepared inside the bamboo tubes and the bibingka being baked between flaming charcoals. To add to that, tsokolate de batirol and salabat (or ginger tea) are the perfect drink as you enjoy the distinct cold breeze of the Simbang Gabi mornings.

Does the Philippines Have the Longest Christmas in the World?

When it comes to the holidays in the Philippines, there’s one thing that we’ll all agree with – the Philippines starts Christmas preparations early in the year, even before the breeze gets cold. The moment the month starts ending in “-ber,” you can guarantee you’ll start hearing Christmas songs being played everywhere. That means that the Christmas season in the Philippines starts as early as three months before December, making the Filipino Christmas celebrations the longest anywhere in the world.

Whether it’s because of the religious culture or just the general inclination of the population for celebrations, no other country in the world probably celebrates Christmas the way Filipinos do.

However, the recent years of the pandemic have – in some ways – upended the traditional way that Filipinos celebrate Christmas. From large family gatherings and reunions, celebrating Christmas during the pandemic made for smaller and more intimate celebrations, with some limited to only the immediate family. Even the tradition of Simbang Gabi has been affected, especially with the limited capacity of chapels and churches.

But although the yearly traditions have laid low in recent years, the Filipino’s ability to celebrate Christmas has not been hampered by any pandemic. Christmas in the Philippines still holds a special place in every Filipino’s heart, with Simbang Gabi celebrations still being held in thousands of churches and chapels around the country, regardless of the limited seating capacity or regulations needed to be followed for safety.

Let us remember too that being able to celebrate our faith by going to simbang gabi is a privilege, a gift that is granted to us as a religious community and as Filipinos. Some years ago, during martial law, the curfew hour restriction led to the re-scheduling of the predawn masses to the evening hours. Today, the Filipino faithful are able to attend the masses and are thereby encouraged to participate and understand its deeper meaning.

As Catholics, we are invited to be one with the Church in its intentions for holding the nine-day tradition and to encounter God in the solemn celebrations. Let us continue the practice and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ as we offer our thanks for this ultimate gift and for all the aguinaldos that we have received in our lives.

Finally, let us pray for peace in our country, in our families, and in our hearts. May the faithful among us always be steadfast in their principles and unwavering in faith.

Warm Christmas greetings to all of my BusinessMirror readers!

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