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Simbang Gabi truly begins our Christmas

SIMBANG Gabi today marks the official start of the Christmas season in the Philippines. Actually we started hearing Christmas carols as early as September 1, and office and school Christmas parties began as soon as December came in.

But it is on December 16 that the faithful leave the comfort of their homes before dawn to attend the first of nine Masses celebrated in churchyards all over the land.

Simbang Gabi has its roots in the Holy Land where early Christians held a midnight vigil in Bethlehem, followed by a torchlight procession to Jerusalem arriving there before dawn. In 1587, the Pope granted a petition of the head monk at the Convent of San Agustin Acolman in Mexico to hold the Mass outdoors because the church could not accommodate the many church goers on Christmas Eve. In rural areas, where farmers had to work in the fields, they attended mass before the cock crowed at the break of dawn, thus Misa de Gallo. In Puerto Rico, the series of dawn masses was called Misa de Aguinaldo, ending with the Misa de Gallo on Christmas Eve.

To this day pre-dawn Christmas Masses are held in many countries — in Spain, Latin America, and the Philippines. Our Simbang Gabi carries on the tradition that began with the early Christians in the Holy Land and the church celebration has come to be intertwined with other Filipino cultural practices like the lighting of star-shaped lanterns or “parol.” After the pre-dawn Mass, Filipino families have taken to partaking of holiday delicacies in the churchyard such as “bibingka” and “puto bumbong.”

There are many other folk traditions in the Filipino celebration of Christmas. In some provinces, the journey of Joseph and Mary in search of lodgings is reenacted in “Panunuluyan.” San Fernando, Pampanga, has its Giant Lantern Festival while Tarlac has its province-wide Belen competition. On Christmas Eve, families gather for the “Noche Buena” where they share the holiday food of ham and cheese and other delicacies. On Christmas Day, families visit their senior relatives to pay their respects and the children receive their “aguinaldo.”

The rest of the Christmas season in the Philippines will be filled with other activities – playing practical jokes on Niños Inocentes on December 28, family gatherings for “Media Noche” on New Year’s Eve while firecarackrs explode all over town to exorcise malevolent spirits. Then the Feast of the Epiphany or Three Kings Day on the Sunday after New Year’s Day, with some families continuing the tradition of children leaving their shoes or hanging stockings for the Three Kings to fill with small gifts.

Many Christmas practices have also come to us from other countries – Christmas trees, Santa Claus, mall sales, concerts – but it is the old traditions that remain at the core of the Filipino Christmas. And among the best loved of these traditions is today’s Simbang Gabi, which truly begins Christmas in our land.