Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Philippine Christmas tradition--Misa de Aguinaldo then, Simbang Gabi today

Belen on the grounds of the Philippine Temple of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, Quezon City.

The countdown began yesterday morning (16 December) with the first of the nine dawn masses in Roman Catholic churches all over the archipelago. As we write, that would be 8 days to Christmas proper--the 'twelve days of Christmas' of the popular song that starts with a partridge on pear tree and ends with twelve drummers drumming--the twelve days between Christmas day, 25 December, commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, and the feast of the Epiphany, the traditional Three Kings day of 06 January of the next year.  

We remember that our father was not a church goer.  But until he retired from his job at the US naval facility, he never failed to hear the dawn masses before boarding the Victory Liner bound for Subic, almost an hour away.  

For some time, we were utterly confused if this aguinaldo mass was the same as the misa de gallo, and which one referred to the midnight mass on the eve of Christmas . The first means 'Christmas presents,' and 'gallo' insinuates the cockcrow that should rouse us up from bed for the morning mass.

Childhood in an Ilocano-speaking coastal town of Zambales meant braving the chill of December dawn to attend the misas de aguinaldo.  When we moved to Manila, the misas became Simbang Gabi (night mass, literally) and we missed the peaceful walk on unpaved streets to the church in the town plaza.  

To Puerto Ricans, and probably other Hispanic countries, aguinaldos refer to their Chrismas songs; hence, in their nine-day dawn masses, they sing aguinaldos, villancicos (which the indios of las yslas Filipinas learned to sing) and other religious hymns.  They call the midnight misa de aguinaldo of Christmas eve the misa de gallo.

According to popular legend, the Spanish friars had the misas at dawn so that the indios labradores can hear them before they hie off to farms outside of town to tend their crops. A recent account suggests that our Simbang Gabi has its roots in Mexico when, in 1587, the pope approved the petition of Fray Diego de Soria of the San Agustin Acolman convent there to hold Christmas mass outdoors for the overflow of churchgoers attending the evening service.

Church historians however tell us that the midnight mass had its origins among the Christians of Jerusalem, citing the account of Egeria, a woman pilgrim to the Holy Land in 381-384, about the commemoration of Christmas "with a midnight vigil at Bethlehem, followed by a torchlight procession to Jerusalem arriving at dawn [at] the Church of the Resurrection" on January 6.  The second dawn mass is said to have been celebrated around 550 by the Pope at the Church of Anastasia on December 25, which happened to be also the feast day of St. Anastasia.

Belen in the lantern made of dried coconut materials. Photo taken at the Lantern Parade of UP Manila.

More than a century after the Christianization of the Philippines, Fray Juan Sanchez (1683-89) was writing about the misas de aguinaldo being contaminated "with practices that were superstitious, and contrary to the holy rites of the church."  Thus, there was a time after 1680 that the archbishop prohibited the celebration of the masses here.  

Around a century later, Fray Pedro Murillo Velarde (1749) was writing about the nine-day early morning misas de aguinaldo being sung with great solemnity.

More than a hundred years later, Fray Pedro Rosell (1885) described to his superior the religious ceremonies being held "to honor the birth of our Blessing, Jesus."   To prepare for Christmas, he wrote of the celebration of the immaculate conception "a week beforehand", and then followed by "a daily mass of the [Virgin Mary]," which we read as the nine-day dawn misas de aguinaldo.

"On the last day or the vigil of the feast," wrote Father Rossel, "a pleasing, although simple Belen was made at one side of the presbytery in which were placed the images of the Child, Mary, and Joseph. Christmas eve came, and at eleven o'clock the bells were rung loudly, and from half past eleven until twelve, a continual ringing of bells two at a time announced to the people that the mass called Gallo was to be celebrated in memory of that holy hour in which the eternal Son of God the Father, made man in the most pure entrails of the Virgin Mary willed to be born on that poor and abandoned manger threshold [portal de Belen]. Hence when twelve o'clock had struck, the missa-cantata  was said, which was followed by the adoration of the holy Child. That was made enjoyable by the singing of some fine Christmas carols. The twenty-fifth dawned bright and joyful."

That scene still rings familiar today although the Belen is constructed as early as the first day of December.  There was one big reason why we went to the midnight mass when we were very young. That was to watch the lighted star lantern moved high above us from the choir loft to the Belen at the side of the altar at some part of the mass with all the lights turned off.  

We haven't seen a "moving star" in midnight masses for a long time, nor an adoration of the image of the newborn Jesus, especially if these are celebrated outside the churches - in grandstands, parks and shopping mall grounds. 

The fact is there are no longer misas de aguinaldo or gallo at midnight on the eve of Christmas. These have been moved earlier to 9 o'clock these recent years, which we'd like to think, is an accommodation of another Christmas tradition, the noche buena after the mass, when family eat together the best food they can lay on the table.

Whether you're still of the old Roman Christian faith or not, whether you still go to the dawn masses as a matter of devotion or not, Maligayang Pasko (Merry Christmas), everyone! 

  • Sanchez, Juan, et al. (1683-89). Felipe Pardo as archbishop. The Pardo Controversy. The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898 : explorations by early navigators, etc. (Blair, E.H. & Robertson, J. A., Eds., Bourne, E.G., Tr.).   39(1):245-246. Mandaluyong, Rizal: Cachos Hermanos, 1973.  Retrieved from 
  • Velarde, P. M. (1749). Jesuit missions in the seventeenth century.  The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898 : explorations by early navigators, etc. (Blair, E.H. & Robertson, J. A., Eds., Bourne, E.G., Tr.).   44(1):108-109.  Mandaluyong, Rizal: Cachos Hermanos, 1973.  Retrieved from
  • Rosell, P. (1885, Apr 17). Letter from Father Pedro Rosell [S.J.] The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898 : explorations by early navigators, etc. (Blair, E.H. & Robertson, J. A., Eds., Bourne, E.G., Tr.).   43(1):225-228.  Mandaluyong, Rizal: Cachos Hermanos, 1973.  Retrieved from

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