Now you don’t have to be in the Philippines to experience the age-old tradition of Simbang Gabi and the iconic food that comes with it—bibingka and puto bumbong (native rice cakes).
Simbang Gabi has gone global.
First “imported” from Mexico in the late 16th century, the practice of celebrating Simbang Gabi—or the novena of nine Masses leading up to Christmas Eve—is now being “exported” by the Philippines to a world weary of the commercialization of Christmas and in search of its spiritual meaning.
Fr. Gennie Diwa, head of the office of liturgy of the Archdiocese of Manila, said that for the last three years, he has been receiving inquiries from churchmen abroad—particularly the United States—about the Filipino tradition, whose celebration is quickly spreading there.
Locally, even Protestant churches have taken up the practice after seeing its value in emphasizing the spiritual side of Christmas, Diwa said.
And as the Filipino diaspora continues to spread across the globe, he said Filipinos carry with them the “Filipino Christmas experience,” of which Simbang Gabi is one of the most cherished traditions.
“At the beginning, when Filipinos started to introduce this to the American church, bishops and priests, [they] were so weary about it. They did not like it,” Diwa said in an interview.
“It’s because you have to wake up very early in winter and it’s an added work to the American pastors. But now, surprisingly, we were told that the American church sees the power of Simbang Gabi to help people recover the spiritual meaning of the season,” he said.
“Many of them now accommodate the Filipinos and even try to modify it for the Americans themselves,” he added.
No longer Christmas
Diwa said Christmas in the United States “is no longer Christmas,” with the popularity of Santa Claus and his reindeers outshining the original Christian character of the season. Also, putting up nativity scenes are blocked in certain areas.
“But they now see the power of Simbang Gabi as a means to spiritual recovery. I think it’s really a help to recover the real meaning of the season,” he added.
Peachy Yamsuan, communications chief of the Archdiocese of Manila, said they have also received inquiries from Filipino communities abroad.
“As early as September and October, we get online inquiries from them asking about the liturgy and the readings for Simbang Gabi,” she said.
But the practice of Simbang Gabi began in these islands after Catholic missionaries from Mexico brought it to the country, according to Diwa. He said Mexican Catholics at that time began holding early dawn Masses in honor of the Virgin Mary before going out to till their fields at Christmas time.
Catholic missionaries then brought it to the Philippines and Filipinos “enthusiastically adopted it,” even adding their own flavor.
“From my research, it was typically Mexican. They held it at dawn because people wake up early in the morning before they do their farming. It was a way to start the day for nine days in honor of the Blessed Mother and Christmas,” he said.
“I don’t think that the Mexicans still celebrate it… but it became more popular in the Philippines. It was easily accepted here because, although Easter is supposed to be the greatest feast day of the Church, for Filipinos, Christmas in its form and preparation is more popular than Easter,” he added.
Diwa said the Catholic Church normally celebrates its Masses during Advent in a solemn way but Filipinos were able to convince the Vatican to grant the Philippines permission to make Simbang Gabi “festive.”
He said the Filipinos also added “local flavor” through practices like the Panunuluyan (the dramatization of the Holy Family’s search for an inn), singing villancico (upbeat church songs) and the cooking of Christmas delicacies (kakanin), like puto bumbong.
“At the time, the liturgy was inflexible. You cannot change or insert anything. The only thing they could do was the music,” Diwa said.
“So they had the villancico, which is proper for Simbang Gabi. They used tambourines and then ate kakanin and drank salabat (ginger ale) afterwards,” he added.
He said Filipinos were able to “enter into a religious atmosphere” before attending Simbang Gabi by dramatizations like Panunuluyan.
“Before the Mass, they would go house to house and they have songs for these. It highlights the virtue of Filipino hospitality. If you welcome Christ, you are blessed. If you don’t welcome Christ through the stranger, you are cursed,” Diwa said.
“This was Filipino enculturation. This was the way of cathechizing Filipinos of the story of the incarnation. The drama of God knocking at the door and man refusing to answer, with folk flavor,” he added.
Diwa said that at one time, Simbang Gabi became so festive that the Spanish Archbishop of Manila had to suppress its practice.
Solemn but festive
“It became so noisy, the solemnity of the celebration was distracted. So there was a time in the history of the Church in the Philippines when this was abrogated but later on, it was recovered,” he added.
In 1953, the Philippine bishops asked the Vatican for a formal permission to celebrate the Simbang Gabi.
“So, this was granted as a special privilege of the Church in the Philippines to celebrate [Simbang Gabi] in a solemn and festive way,” he said.
Diwa also pointed out that, unlike in other parts of the Catholic world, priests celebrating Simbang Gabi wear white vestments (instead of the usual violet used by priests around the world during Advent) and the hymn “Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the Highest)” is sung.
“It’s a privilege for the Philippines. The letters I’ve been receiving recently from bishops and others from the United States were asking me why is it that we have white vestments and we have the ‘Gloria,’” Diwa said.
“Liturgically, that is an abnormality. But that is because that indult is given to the Philippine church and not for the whole church,” he said.
Diwa said some Protestant churches in the country have also seen the value of Simbang Gabi by having their own nine-day church services before Christmas.
“Of course, they don’t call it novena Masses but the essence is still there. They now see the beauty of it as an antidote to the too commercialistic character of Christmas nowadays. It’s a spiritual preparation amidst the fever and the noise. People are looking for ways and means to recover the spiritual,” he said.
Diwa also pointed out that many of those who attend these early dawn Masses are young people who go with their friends.
“It’s popular because it’s very challenging. It’s like you have to persevere until the end [of the nine days]. So, it can be used in a positive way by helping the spiritual life of the young to grow,” he said.
“It’s a powerful tool to awaken the faith, to recover the spirituality of the season and to evangelize the young and even the family,” he added.