The original Simbang Gabi in the Philippines was called the “Misa Aurea” (Angel’s Mass). In 1587, Fray Diego Soria, Prior of the convent of San Agustin Acolman, petitioned the Pope for permission to hold Christmastide masses outdoors because the church could not accommodate the multitude that attended the services. The request was granted through a rescript and in the 17th Century, the Misa Aguinaldo or the Simbang Gabi or Misa de Gallo became a Filipino spiritual tradition.
This novena of masses expressed the sentiments of the people towards Mary and manifested the Filipino rite of celebrating LIFE in more festive ways. The readings, the prayers, and the chants of the Misa Aguinaldo or Simbang Gabi, made it clear, that it was a celebration of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Father’s eternal word – the fruit of Mary’s womb.
Simbang Gabi masses were celebrated in the early morning hours, when the roosters crow to announce the coming of a new day (hence, the name Misa de Gallo) for a very practical reason: Filipinos were farmers or fishermen who either began or ended their day at dawn. Workers in the field began their work at the crack of dawn to avoid the intense heat and take advantage of the capacity of the carabao to work. Fishermen who spent all night at sea came home to sell their yield.
The missionaries decided they could gather all the people together at one time, implant in the hearts and minds of the catechumens in the substance to Christianity, preserve the Catholic Faith, and continue the propagation of the Gospels by integrating a distinctly Filipino custom with the needs of Catholic worship.
Thus at the first sound of dawn, the local band played traditional Christmas carols all over town or the “sacristan mayor” pealed the bells and the whole town was up for Simbang Gabi. The entire family would walk or ride their carabao sleds to the nearest church.
By 5:00 A.M. the Mass and accompanying catechism were over and celebration continued with variety of delicacies sold in the churchyard for everyone’s pleasure, lighted lanterns fashioned of bamboo and paper (parol) are displayed in the churchyard for everyone’s pleasure; some are hanging from windows and some are decorating the streets leading to the church.
The Filipino immigrants brought this tradition with them when they came to the United States celebrating a novena of Advent Masses to heighten the preparation of the faithful for the birth of our savior, Jesus Christ, and in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Simbang Gabi in our Diocese
Simbang Gabi in the Diocese of San Bernardino is celebrated at various participating parishes. Through Simbang Gabi, our Church hopes to offer the faithful a deepening of spiritual experience that leads to a more meaningful Christmas celebration. It is also hoped that Simbang Gabi will provide an opportunity for sharing and experiencing diverse religious expressions and cultural traditions.
Although it is still within the Advent season, special permission has been granted to make Simbang Gabi a festive celebration. Thus, the church is adorned in white and the priest celebrants wear white vestments. This spiritual experience enables the faithful to joyfully anticipate the coming of the Messiah in their faith communities, homes, and hearts.
Since the cold December weather makes it impractical to hold the celebration at dawn, local parishes have the celebration at night. While the form of celebration is changed, the substance remains.