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'Simbang Gabi' in PHL.

An old European folklore narrates that Jesus was born at the stroke of midnight on December 25. To the rooster was assigned the honorable task of announcing Jesus' birth. So, the rooster flies to the roof of the stable to proclaim 'in a human voice-Christ is born.'

So people honor his birth at Simbang Gabi (Midnight Mass).

Historical beginnings

The historical beginning of Simbang Gabi could be traced to the midnight vigil among the early Christians in Bethlehem. After the vigil on the night of Christmas, a torchlight procession followed until dawn in the church of the Resurrection.

The ceremony, called Misa de los Pastores (Shepherds' Mass), was first chronicled by Aetheria Egeria, or Etheroiua, in a letter, titled 'Peregrinatio Itinerarium Ad Loca Santa [Pilgrimage to Holy Land by Aetheria],' to a group of Christian acquaintances, possibly women, in 381-384.

Although Galician Valerius identified Aetheria as a nun, others contend that she was an educated and wealthy woman who could afford the luxury of a three-year journey to many biblical places she described so well in her writings.

Considered as an important record of Christian rites in early times, 'fragmentary forms of the manuscripts' was copied in Codex Aretinus written at Monte Cassino in the 11th century. Italian scholar Gian Francisco Gamurrini discovered the manuscripts in the monastic library in Arrezzo.

Church records revealed that Pope Sixtus III (432-440) instituted the Midnight Mass in an oratory in Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, the largest Marian church in Rome, built in 221 by Pope Callixtus and completed by Pope Julius I.

In 1587 Fray San Diego de Soria, head monk of San Agustine Acolman, petitioned Pope Sixtus V to allow them to celebrate Midnight Masses outdoors to accommodate more people.

Misa de Aguinaldo

On March 31, 1521, an Easter Sunday, Magellan planted a cross in Limasawa, Leyte, and claimed the Philippines for the King of Spain. The pope obligated Spain to Christianize the Filipinos. Spanish priests came to teach the Filipinos the Christian doctrine.

To impress on Filipino Christian converts on the significance of Christmas Day, the dawn Mass was introduced. Since Christmas is the birthday of Jesus, and the Mass is likened to a gift, it was called Misa de Aguinaldo (Gift Mass). But since the dawn Mass at 4 a.m. was still dark, Simbang Gabi(Midnight Mass) was considered a logical description of the ritual.

The Filipinos, who are early risers and rooster lovers, welcomed the religious rite, as it augured well with their waking habits. Thus, through the years, Simbang Gabi has become an important Christmas celebration among Roman Catholics and faithfuls from the Philippine Independent Church.

The continuous ringing of church bells served as a beacon call to people. And parents would complement the pealing bells and say: 'Let's now go to mass, the rooster has crowed.' Sometimes a marching band signals the waking time.

Simbang Gabi starts on December 16 and ends on the midnight of December 24.

Akin to novenas to saints, the faithful are enjoined to make petitions to the Child Jesus.

The Filipinos through the decades have enthusiastically adopted Simbang Gabi. 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.'

Christmas Day is a joyful celebration in the country. Lantern and Nativity Scene contests are held. Fireworks displays abound as well. Church choirs and children's groups go around neighborhoods to sing Christmas carols. Kris Kringle or exchanging of gifts is a favorite among young people.

Two native Filipino delicacies sold in churchyards during the Christmas season are bibingka and puto bumbong. Bibingka is rice cake made of rice flour cooked between flaming charcoals, and topped with grated coconut and eggs. Puto bumbong is grounded, sticky rice cooked inside bamboo tubes with coconut shavings and brown sugar sprinkled on top.

Both Filipino delicacies are eaten with salabat (ginger tea) or thick, hot, chocolate drinks.

Longest Christmas

Christmas is celebrated the longest in the Philippines. As soon as the 'ber' months start, or as early as September, some radio stations already air Christmas carols, signalling the 100-day countdown before Christmas.

Department stores also start decorating display windows with Christmas motifs during the ber months and flea markets make brisk sales, since people start stocking Christmas presents.

Filipinos are music lovers and love to sing:

'Misa de Gallo sa tuwing Pasko

Nagdarasal ang bawa't tao

Nagpapasalamat sa pagsilang,

Ng Diyos na hari ng mundo.'

(Shepherds Mass every Christmas

Every person prays and

Give thanks to God on his birth

As King of the world.')
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Publication:Business Mirror (Makati City, Philippines)
Date:Dec 17, 2017
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