The Filipinos are very much a religious people, a characteristic brought about by the introduction of the Catholic faith by the Spaniards. Along with the faith taught by the Spanish missionaries, they also incorporated some rituals with Catholic practices to better allow for the gradual whole-hearted acceptance by the Filipinos of the Catholic religion. Among these practices is the Simbang Gabi or Misa de Gallo, which is still quite a popular tradition among Filipinos. “Simbang Gabi was adopted from the Catholic Misa de Gallo, which literally means mass of the rooster, to indicate it is held at dawn when the rooster crows.” It brings Filipino Catholics together in preparation for the birth of Christ. It is celebrated nine days before the Nativity of Christ, which is on December 25, and begins on December 16. The Simbang Gabi is a type of mass celebrated very early in the morning, usually at dawn. The churches are adorned with attractive decorations, and there are also feast foods such as puto bumbong and bibingka awaiting the Simbang Gabi churchgoers.
Simbang Gabi started in Mexico when, in 1587, Fray Diego de Soria, requested permission from the Pope to hold Christmastide masses outdoors because the church could not accommodate the tides of people attending the dawn services. Subsequent to the granting of the request, the masses were given the name as Misa de Aguinaldo.
Pope Sixtus V, in the 16th century, ordered for the celebration of these pre-dawn masses in the Philippines starting every December 16. This nine-day novena was not a traditional practice of Catholics worldwide, but it was slightly altered to suit the interests and ancient traditions of the Filipino people. They incorporated the nine-day novena with the nine-day traditional festivals of the Filipinos for occasions such as harvest time. Because rural Filipinos were used to starting the day two hours before sunrise, and working the whole day, they sometimes reasoned that they couldn’t go to mass within the day because they had work. Holding the Simbang Gabi at dawn gave farmers and their families a chance to hear mass and celebrate with the community for the Nativity of Christ. Then, after they heard mass, they could on to their tasks. They went to mass to celebrate the coming birth of Christ and in honor of Mary, the Mother of God.
The Misas de Aguinaldo characterize the Philippines, Mexico and Spain from other Catholic countries. What separates the Simbang Gabi of the Philippines, though, from that of Spain and Mexico is the length of the celebration and the lasting presence of the Christmas spirit. The difference of the Simbang Gabi with that of other masses in Catholic life is that it is held at dawn. We do not celebrate Jesus’ birth in our normal masses, but rather his resurrection and act of salvation for all of us. It is during Simbang Gabi and Misa de Gallo (Christmas mass) that we truly highlight the birth of Jesus and reiterate his purpose for being human in this world, knowing that He is one with God and therefore divine.