After five centuries, this Filipino Christmas tradition lives on.
Every year, as soon as Advent arrived, my parents would tell stories about how Christmas was celebrated “back home” in the Philippines, where they had been born and raised. Although we embraced the customs and traditions of the United States, we did not forget our Filipino traditions.
I never grew tired of listening to the stories about Christmas back in the Philippines, and one of my favourite tales was about the tradition of Simbang Gabi or Misa de Gallo. In fact, the celebration has gone by many different names, including the Golden Mass or Angels’ Mass.
It started in 1587, when the crowds at Mass on the days before Christmas were overflowing from the church, so the prior of the San Agustin Acolman Convent, on the island of Luzon, Philippines, asked the pope’s permission to hold the services outdoors. The request was granted, and Simbang Gabi became a Filipino spiritual tradition of Mass on each of the nine days before Christmas.
In the Philippines, Simbang Gabi novena Masses were celebrated at dawn, when the roosters crow, hence the name Misa de Gallo or “Mass of the rooster.” This was done for very practical reasons—Filipinos then were farmers or fishers who either began or ended their day at dawn.
The missionaries decided they could gather all the people together to implant in their hearts and minds the teachings of the Catholic faith while integrating Filipino customs and traditions.
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This article originally appeared in the December 2003 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 68, No. 12).
Sister Jolisa Lazaro SND is the director of evangelisation at St. Anthony Parish in Long Beach, California.
With thanks to U.S. Catholic, published by the Claretian Missionaries, a Roman Catholic religious community of priests and brothers dedicated to the mission of living and spreading the gospel of Jesus.