The celebration of Christmas in the Philippines is known to be one of the biggest holidays in the country and the longest Christmas season in the world. Christmas carols are played as early as September 1,and the season ends either onEpiphany1, on the Feast of the Black Nazarene2 (January 9), or on the Feast of the Santo Niño3 (the third Sunday of January).
A Christmas tradition among Filipinos is Simbang Gabi. Well, Tita S is here to tell foreigners what it is all about.
Simbang Gabi (Filipino for “Night Mass”) is a devotional nine-day series of masses practiced by Roman Catholics and Aglipayans4 in the Philippines in anticipation of Christmas. A well-known folk belief among Filipinos is that if a devotee completes all nine days, a request made may be granted. It is the Filipinos’ spiritual preparation for Christmas.
It is similar to the nine-day series of dawn masses leading to Christmas Eve, practiced in Puerto Rico called Misa de Aguinaldo.
Seniors, if you are physically fit, sleep early so you can attend Simbang Gabi, and not doze off during the sermon portion of the mass. Joke only!
Filipinos attend Simbang Gabi at dawn and sacrifice to wake up early as a gesture of their gift to God, and as a form of gratitude to Him for giving His only Son, Jesus Christ, the ultimate gift that all can receive.5
Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish Church, Pagsanjan, Laguna, Philippines, alit for Simbang Gabi 2018
These masses in the Philippines are held daily from December 15-24, and occur at different times, ranging from as early as 3:00 am to 5:00 am. Some churches celebrate this mass between 8:00 and 10:00 pm, from December 15 to 23, to accommodate the needs of the parishioners who have different schedules.
Christmas decoration inside St. John the Baptist Church, Longos, Kalayaan, Laguna, Philippines (photo by Maybelle Rabisanto)
On the last day of the Simbang Gabi, which is Christmas Eve, the service is instead called Misa de Gallo (Spanish for “Rooster’s Mass”).
Just how did Simbang Gabi start?
Simbang Gabi originated in the early days of Spanish rule over the Philippines as a practical compromise for farmers, who began work before sunrise to avoid the noonday heat out in the fields. It began in 1669, when priests started to say mass in the early mornings instead of the evening novenas6 so the farmers could attend.
Pope Sixtus V7 ordered that the masses be held before sunrise since it was harvesting season and the farmers needed to be in the fields right after the celebration.
The mass, nowadays, may begin at 4:00 am. Churches are decorated with colorful lights and parol8 lanterns.A Christmas tree and a Nativity Scene outside the Santa Maria Magdalena Parish Church, Magdalena, Laguna, Philippines (day and night photos by Venus Buenaceda-Calo)
The Belen, or Nativity Scene, is displayed in preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ.Nativity Scene inside the San Sebastian Parish Church, Lumban, Laguna, Philippines (photo by Rodalyn de Guzman)
Traditionally, after mass, Filipinos bought native delicacies and drinks sold in the church courtyard for breakfast like bibingka9, hot pandesal10, puto bumbong11, tsokolate12 and salabat13.
Rice-based foods were traditionally served to fill the stomachs of the farmers, since rice is a cheap and primary staple. The kakanins14 were full of carbohydrates needed by colonial Filipinos for the work they undertook in the rice paddies and sugar mills.
Nowadays, other food and beverage items are offered, e.g., puto15, suman,16 arroz caldo17, and kapeng barako18.
So, dearest foreign Seniors, now you know more about Filipino culture. Why not plan a Christmas vacation in our country next year, especially those of you residing in temperate countries, so you can not only witness our Christmas traditions but also enjoy sunny beaches in any of our wonderful islands. See you around!
The information mostly came from Wikipedia page “Simbang Gabi”.19
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The following terms are defined for interested readers, especially non-Filipinos, those with “Senior-Moments”, and those too busy to Google such terms:
1Epiphany, or Three Kings’ Day, is a Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ. In the Philippines, it commemorates the visit of the Magi (named Balthasar, Caspar and Melchior) to the Christ Child, and is celebrated in different ways, e.g., children leave their shoes out so that the “Kings” will leave behind gifts like candy or money inside; or three men/boys who are dressed as kings, ride around on horseback, distributing trinkets and candy to the children of the area. The information was obtained from the Wikipedia page “Epiphany (holiday)”.20
2TheBlack Nazarene is a life-sized, dark-skinned, image of Jesus Christ kneeling while carrying the Cross, enshrined in the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in the Quiapo district of the City of Manila, Philippines, according to the Wikipedia page “Black Nazarene”.21
3Santo Niño is the Spanish title for the Child Jesus.
4Aglipayans are the members of the Philippine Independent Church, an independent Christian denomination, with Gregorio Aglipay as its first Supreme Bishop, according to the Wikipedia page “Philippine Independent Church”.22
6A novena is an ancient tradition of devotional praying in Christianity, consisting of private or public prayers repeated for nine successive days or weeks, where a devotee makes a petition, implores a favor, or obtains graces by worshipping Jesus Christ, and asking for the intercessions of the Virgin Mary or the saints of the faith, according to the Wikipedia page “Novena”.23
7Pope Sixtus V, or Xystus V, (1521-1590) was the Pope of the Catholic Church from April 24, 1585 to his death on August 27, 1590, according to Wikipedia page “Pope Sixtus V”.24
8A parol is an ornamental, star-shaped Christmas lantern in the Philippines, traditionally made out of bamboo sticks and covered by colored pieces of either Japanese paper or crepe paper. Its design evokes the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Three Kings to the manger. It also symbolizes the victory of light over darkness and the Filipinos’ hope and goodwill during the Christmas season. It is the iconic symbol of the Filipino Christmas, and is as important to Filipinos as the Christmas tree is to Western cultures. It comes in various sizes and shapes, but generally the basic star pattern remains dominant, from the small, tinsel and foil lanterns to the gigantic ones that are electrically lit at night, and may have one, three, or more tails aside from the ubiquitous two. More complex shapes are bromeliad, rose, sea urchin, and snowflake, among others. Pampanga lanterns now have electronic lights that can be programmed to produce a dancing effect, as is the use of LED rope lights, known as “flexilight” lanterns. The parol is displayed as a Christmas decoration until Epiphany.1 The information was obtained from the Wikipedia page “Parol”.25
9Bibingka is a traditional rice cake in the Philippines made of rice flour, coconut milk, eggs, milk and water, traditionally cooked in clay pots lined with banana leaves with preheated coals top and bottom, usually enjoyed during the Christmas season, served hot or warm for breakfast or as a dessert. Toppings include butter/margarine, sugar, cheese, grated coconut and salted duck eggs26.
10Pandesal is a common yeast-raised bread roll in the Philippines made of flour, eggs, yeast, sugar, and salt. It is commonly served hot during breakfast, and originally consumed by dipping in coffee or hot chocolate drink. It can also be enjoyed with butter/margarine, cheese, jam or peanut butter. The information was obtained from the Wikipedia page “Pandesal”.27
11Puto bumbong is a traditional cylindrical, purple/violet, Filipino, steamed, sticky rice cake made from pirurutong (glutinous rice flour, soaked in salted water and dried overnight) with violet coloring, placed into bumbong (bamboo tubes) attached to a lansungan (steamer) then steamed until done (i.e., when steam rises out of the bamboo tubes). The cooked sticky mixture is tapped out of the bamboo tubes, traditionally onto a banana leaf, with a dollop of margarine/butter, then topped with a mixture of freshly grated coconut and (muscovado28 or white) sugar. It is then wrapped and kept warm in a (thermal) container.
12Tsokolate is a native Filipino thick hot chocolate drink made from tabliya, tablets of pure ground roasted cacao beans, dissolved in water and milk. It is traditionally made using a tsokolatera29 and briskly mixed with a wooden baton called the molinillo30 (also called batidor or batirol), causing the drink to be frothy. It is typically sweetened with a bit of muscovado28, and has a distinctive grainy texture. The information was obtained from the Wikipedia page “Tsokolate”.31
13Salabat is the Filipino term for hot ginger tea, enjoyed as is, or with a sweetener.
14Kakanin is the Filipino term for a common native snack in the Philippines, consisting of various kinds of rice cakes. NOTE: Kakanin comes from the word “kanin”, meaning “prepared rice”.
15Puto is a traditional, round (like a cupcake), soft, moist, Filipino, steamed rice cake, served for breakfast or merienda32, usually as an accompaniment for dinuguan33 or pancit34 (Filipino stir-fried egg noodles with sliced meat, shrimps and chopped vegetables). A small amount of wood ash lye can be added, especially in the Tagalog region of the Philippines. There are many kinds of puto and modern variations are available in various colors and sizes. Puto can be eaten as is, or with butter and/or freshly grated coconut.
16Suman is a Filipino rice cake made from glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk, often wrapped in banana leaves or buli/buri (Corypha) leaves for steaming, usually eaten sprinkled with sugar, or laden with latik35. There are many varieties of suman. The information was obtained from the Wikipedia page “Suman (food)”.36
17Arroz caldo is a Filipino rice and chicken porridge or gruel, heavily infused with ginger, and garnished with toasted garlic, scallions, and black pepper, usually served with calamansi37, soy sauce, or patis (fish sauce) as condiments, as well as hard-boiled egg. Most versions also add kasubha (safflower) which turns this dish to turn almost yellowish. The information was obtained from the Wikipedia page “Arroz caldo”.38
18Kapeng barako is a very strong coffee with a fragrance reminiscent of aniseed, grown in the provinces of Batangas and Cavite. It is also called Batangas coffee or Barako coffee. The information was obtained from the Wikipedia page “Kapeng barako”.39
19“Simbang Gabi,” accessed December 12, 2018, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simbang_Gabi.
20“Epiphany,” accessed December 12, 2018, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epiphany.
21“Black Nazareme,” accessed December 12, 2018, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Nazarene.
22“Philippine Independent Church,” accessed December 12, 2018, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philippine_Independent_Church.
23“Novena,” accessed December 12, 2018, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novena.
24“Pope Sixtus V,” accessed December 12, 2018, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Sixtus_V.
25“Parol,” accessed December 12, 2018, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parol.
26A salted duck egg is a preserved food product made by soaking duck eggs in brine or packing the eggs in damp, salted charcoal. In the Philippines, the eggs are traditionally dyed red to differentiate it with fresh duck eggs. It is used as a topping for bibingka9, or mixed with chopped, fresh tomatoes and scallions, onions and fish sauce, as a side salad for fried fish.
27“Pandesal,” accessed December 12, 2018, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pandesal.
28Muscovado is a partially refined sugar with a strong molasses content and flavor. It is considered a healthy alternative to refined sugar due to higher levels of minerals (calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium). It is used in various food and confectionery, like puto bumbong11 in the Philippines.
29A tsokolatera is the Filipino term for chocolatera, a Spanish/Latin-American type of high-necked metal pot shaped like a pitcher used for the traditional preparation of tsokolate12, used in combination with a molinillo30 baton to froth the chocolate. The information was obtained from the Wikipedia page “Chocolatera”.40
30A molinillo is a traditional turned wood whisk used in Latin America, as well as the Philippines, where it is called batidol or batirol. It is used primarily for the preparation of hot beverages like tsokolate12, held between the palms and rotated by rubbing the palms together, creating a frothy drink. The information was obtained from the Wikipedia page “Molinillo (whisk)”.41
31“Tsokolate,”accessed December 12, 2018, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsokolate.
32Merienda is a light and simple meal in the Philippines, southern Europe and Hispanic America. In the Philippines, it is taken for brunch or mid-afternoon (called merienda cena), often consisting of a beverage (coffee, hot chocolate, juices, spirits) and a sweet/savory bread/pastry, desserts/sweets or kakanin, street food, noodle dishes, or other Filipino snacks. The information was obtained from the Wikipedia page “Merienda”.42
33Dinuguan is a Filipino savory stew usually made of pork offal (typically ears, heart, intestines, kidneys, lungs and snout) and/or meat simmered in a rich, spicy dark gravy of pig blood, garlic, chili and vinegar, according to the Wikipedia page “Dinuguan”.43
34Pancit is the Filipino term for noodles, introduced by the Chinese, and adopted into the local cuisine, with many regional variations. The noodles are stir-fried, often with sliced meat, shrimps and assorted/chopped vegetables.
35Latik, in the Visayan region, is a syrupy caramelized coconut cream used as a dessert sauce, derived by reducing coconut milk and sugar, used to sweeten kakanins14 like suman16, according to the Wikipedia page “Latik”.44
36“Suman (food),”accessed December 12, 2018, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suman.
37Calamansi is a small (about 30-mm in diameter), tangy-sour citrus fruit with a thin, green skin (which turns yellow-orange when ripe), with a yellow/orange pulp. The juice is used in various food and beverages as a major/minor ingredient, seasoning or dipping ingredient.
38“Arroz caldo,” accessed December 12, 2018, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arroz_caldo.
39“Kapeng barako,” accessed December 12, 2018, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kapeng_barako.
40“Chocolatera,” accessed December 12, 2018, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chocolatera.
41“Molinillo (whisk),” accessed December 12, 2018, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molinillo.
42“Merienda,” accessed December 12, 2018, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merienda.
43“Dinuguan,” accessed December 12, 2018, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dinuguan.
44“Latik,” accessed December 12, 2018, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latik.