Christmas traditions vary among nations expressing the same universal language of hope and joy. In the Philippines, the nine-day “Simbang Gabi” dawn masses which begins before sunrise Wednesday sends a native but jubilant message that the approaching birth of the Son of God is a reminder to millions of Catholics that “God is not frozen in history.”
Filipinos will rise before the crack of dawn to gather in churches and plazas for the first of the nine-day dawn masses in keeping with one of the most popular holiday family traditions that remains as one of the strongest motivations among millions of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to be home for Christmas.
“Simbang Gabi” tradition breathes life into the very first midnight mass of thanksgiving held in the fields of Mexico in 1587 by farmers and their families to celebrate a rich harvest. The practice has since spread to other nations with dominant Catholic populations come Christmas time.
In his book “Fiesta”, author Alejandro Roces mentioned that the first Christmas in the Philippines was celebrated by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1565. Since then, it has become the longest and best-loved festival among Filipinos.
The dawn masses came to be called “Misa de Aguinaldo” by the Spaniards, which means “gift masses” in English that were later introduced to the Philippines from Mexico.
The “Simbang Gabi” has become an essential part of the Filipinos’ Christmas traditions bequeathed by their ancestors. It also retraces the route Joseph and Mary took in search for an inn where she could give birth on that fateful night.
Images of the very first Nativity Scene surrounded by the Three Kings, shepherds and animals, replicating an event that took place in Bethlehem in the outskirts of Jerusalem more than two thousand years ago, will be at the heart of every church altar across the country against a backdrop of Christmas adornments in Yuletide colors.
In their homilies Wednesday, priests will dwell on the vital role John the Baptist played as the prophet for the season of Advent, carrying on the mission of the prophet before him, Isaiah, who prompted future generations to prepare for the “Way of the Lord.”
Msgr. Venus Albert, Las Pinas parish priest, describing the all-important task of John the Baptist, said: “John the Baptist is the prophet of the preparatory time called Advent. Let us not forget what he is reminding us that God is not a God of an era but of people of every age because God is not frozen in history. His saving mission is available for those whose hearts are prepared.”
Msgr. Albert pointed out that the real excitement of Christmas is not in anything money can buy, but in truly celebrating the season of Advent with true repentance and “turning points for the better” in the everyday life of every Christian.
“We can only experience the true joy of Christmas if we welcome Jesus to our lives by loving one another and forgiving every evil, big and small, inflicted on us as we go through life,” he stressed.
In the course of the “Simbang Gabi”, devotees will also be reminded of St. Paul’s advice to the Philippians stressing the importance of loving one another as children of God, including one’s enemies, so that “love for one another would increase to become pure and blameless for the day of Christ’s coming.”
It is said that divine grace and blessings abound in the season of Advent, as what St. John the Baptist meant when he asked Christians “to prepare the way of the Lord.”
And as the nation prepares for the “Simbang Gabi”, present generation Filipinos are reminded of the resonating tone of the season of Advent to open their hearts in joyful anticipation of the kingdom of God whose love “knows no boundaries.”