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How Filipinos prepare for Christmas for nine days before dawn

Jeffrey Bruno
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The 600-year-old tradition recalls the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy

Catholics in the Philippines have celebrated their own pre-Christmas novena for 600 years. Simbang Gabi (Tagalog for “Night Mass”) is a series of nine Masses traditionally celebrated in the pre-dawn hours each day from December 16 to December 24.

The custom began as a way of accompanying Mary symbolically in prayer through the 9 months of her pregnancy. The Masses were so popular that they were often celebrated outdoors, or in churches with the doors left open to accommodate the overflow crowds. At the time most of the Filipino people worked as fishers or in the rice fields, where work began at dawn. They would come to the novena Masses in the evening exhausted and hungry. So priests began celebrating the novena Masses before sunrise, followed by a communal meal of special rice dishes – because most people contributed rice, instead of money, to their parishes.

Church bells rang about 3:30 in the morning, and people would make their way to church in darkness, their way lighted only by parols, the traditional star-shaped Christmas lanterns carried or hung along the route. (Another name for Simbang Gabi is Misa de Gallo, Spanish for “Mass of the Rooster,” because the rooster would crow about the time they left home.) In the plaza of the church, bands played Christmas songs as the people gathered for Mass.

Let us sing while the world is silent

Today in the Philippines Simbang Gabi is still celebrated in the pre-dawn hours, but instead of a church-sponsored meal there are food vendors selling the rice treats. In the United States, where Filipino-American Catholics celebrate Simbang Gabi in many cities, the novena of Masses usually takes place in the evening to accommodate contemporary work schedules. Various parishes and Filipino organizations take turns hosting the nine Masses and the receptions that follow. Churches are decorated with parols, which are carried in the entrance procession.

Attend a Simbang Gabi Mass if the novena is held in your diocese. Or try getting up before dawn on one or more of the days before Christmas to pray a decade of the Rosary and accompany Mary on her journey.

Come, let us go forth singing
Beautiful hymns
For God is love.
Come, let us go forth singing,
While the world is silent . . .
(from the English lyrics for Ang Pasko ay Sumapit [Christmas Is Here], popular Tagalog carol)

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