ARTICLE: Simbang Gabi, Celebrating Advent Filipino-Style

[UPDATE 12/15/14]: If you’re looking for a devotional or personal study to accompany your experience of Simbang Gabi, click here to check out my daily reflections: Waiting for C.H.R.I.S.T.M.A.S.

Growing up,  Simbang Gabi was one of those traditions that made it really feel like the Christmas season was upon us. There’s nothing like a good rendition of Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit to get even the Grinch’s heart to grow three sizes. I was fortunate to grow up in a predominantly Filipino community in northern California, where the Simbang Gabi tradition was introduced to our parish in the early 1990’s. As a 13-year old (and one of only three people who any of the Filipino families involved actually knew could play the piano, lol), I was actually one of the first musicians forced recruited to accompany the choir in the early years (my sister being one of the other recruits). Admittedly, this is probably one of my most formative experiences as a musician, and while it definitely felt like penance at the time, I learned the Order of the Mass backwards and forwards because of it. It was also one of the only times I got to play with someone who plays the banduria — an instrument we need to hear more of, in my humble opinion.

If you’d like to read a little about the history of Simbang Gabi in the Philippines and the United States, I thought I’d share an excerpt from my final integrating paper, “Liturgical Inculturation: A Reflection on the Filipino-American Context.” In the meantime, how you are celebrating these final days of Advent?

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For Filipino-American Catholics, the beginning of the season of Christmas, or pasko, is marked with the celebration of Simbang Gabi (night Masses), a novena of nine Masses beginning on December 16 and ending on December 24. According to Barbara Posadas, this tradition was “imported from Mexico during the Spanish colonial period” (1). Stephen Cherry writes, “Simbang Gabi was first celebrated in the Philippines sometime after 1565 when Miguel Lopez de Legaspi introduced a Christmas mass to the Islands. Today the celebration thrives even in diaspora and has become one of the major cornerstones of community building for Filipinos in the United States” (2).

To read more about the Filipino tradition of Simbang Gabi, check out Ricky Manalo’s article in Pastoral Liturgy, “Deepening Advent, Widening the Circle: Celebrating Las Posadas and Simbang Gabi“.

The ninth Mass is celebrated at midnight on Christmas Eve. At the conclusion of this final mass, referred to as the Misa de Gallo (Mass of the rooster), “families typically gather for the opening of the Christmas gift-giving season and the Noche Buena, a joyous post-midnight supper and the calendar’s most important dinner, although some families prefer to feast on Christmas Day rather than eat a heavy meal in the middle of the night” (3)

Since the arrival of this tradition to the United States, several adaptations have been made in order to accommodate the situational needs of Filipino-Americans. For instance, Masses are often celebrated in the evening, rather than before dawn. Regarding his own experience, Ricky Manalo writes, “the majority of celebrations 10-15 years ago were usually held in the evening, but as Simbang Gabi became more popular, I noticed an increased number of communities who chose to move this celebration to the early morning hours (e.g., 5:00 or 6:00 AM)” (4). Additionally, Simbang Gabi generally begins a day earlier, on December 15, in order to allow for the celebration of the Midnight Mass by the wider parish. As such, the Noche Buena occurs on December 23 and takes place as dinner (versus a post-midnight supper).

Regarding the meaning of Simbang Gabi, there seem to be several interpretations of what the celebration of the nine Masses signify. Fr. Marvin-Paul R. Felipe, SDB writes:

These nine dawn Masses are also considered as a novena to the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Catholic faithful. This refers to the Roman Catholic practice of performing nine days of private or public devotion to obtain special graces. In traditional Catholic belief, completing the novena is also supposed to mean that God might grant the devotee’s special wish or favor…. It is a significant moment not only because it strengthens relationships among family members and parishioners but also because it is the time where our faith is intensified. This is the time where we mostly feel the presence of the Lord because it is the spiritual preparation for Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ. It does not matter if one has the stamina to complete the novena or not, what really matters is what is inside the heart. The blessing does not depend on the number of Masses attended, but what is important is the disposition of the person who receives the Lord’s blessing (5).

It is worth noting that in Felipe’s description above (an article published in San Francisco in December 2011), there seems to be a lack of clarity regarding the meaning of these nine Masses. On the one hand, completing the novena means that “God might grant the devotee’s special wish or favor” (6), an implication that our actions somehow control God’s actions. On the other hand, Felipe writes that, “It does not matter if one has the stamina to complete the novena or not, what really matters is what is inside the heart” (7).

Interestingly enough, the 2010 “Guidelines on the Celebration for Simbang Gabi in the Archdiocese of Manila” make no mention of special wishes granted, rather, the attendance of Masses are the devotee’s gift or offering to God in response to the great gift of Christ:

The tradition was brought to us by Spanish evangelizers from Mexico. Originally, it popularly came to be known as Misa Aguinaldo. De Aguinaldo means gift, gift, which is peculiar to Christmas. That is why, the faithful wake up early morning for nine days before Christmas to join in the celebration of the dawn Mass. The faithful make this their “Aguinaldo” to God for the great gift of Jesus. The practice can also be understood as the preparation of the faithful to receive from God the great gift or “Aguinaldo” of Christmas, which is Jesus, the Savior of the world.  But for Filipino Catholics, Simbang Gabi is above all an expression of their filial devotion to Mary, the Mother of God. For nine consecutive days, they join and accompany her, so to speak, as she awaits the birth of her Son. For this reason, the Masses on these days are celebrated as solemn votive Masses in her honor (8).

All in all, the process of making meaning of Simbang Gabi seems to still be in flux, and has yet to be appropriated and understood in a uniform way.

  1. Barbara M. Posadas, The Filipino Americans (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999), 55.
  2. Stephen Michael Cherry, Breaking the Bread, Sharing the Wine: Religion as Culture and Community in the Civic Life of Filipino-Americans (Ann Arbor: ProQuest, UMI Dissertation Publishing, 2011), 64.
  3. Posadas, 55-56.
  4. Ricky Manalo, “Deepening Advent, Widening the Circle: Celebrating Las Posadas and Simbang Gabi,” Pastoral Liturgy.
  5. Marvin-Paul R. Felipe, SDB, “The Origin and Meaning of the Simbang Gabi Novena,” Catholic San Franciso Online Edition.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Guidelines on the Celebration for Simbang Gabi in the Archdiocese of Manila,” The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Manila.

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