MANILA, December 15, 2003  (MALAYA) By FRANCIS EARL A. CUETO - THE alarm clock is buzzing. Just as you have drifted merrily to sleep, the clock is telling you to get up as you have to start your day. But its 3 in the morning, and the sweet allure of your bed and the enchanting feel of your pillows are simply hard to resist. But then your senses start drumming up fast and the main reason why you had to wake up early had also started ringing in your mind: Simbang Gabi or Misa de Gallo.

While trying at best to stay awake amid the cool breeze and trying to listen to the Mass itself as it unfolds at so early in the morning, Simbang Gabi has become so much a part of our lives as it has been part of the Christian Family tradition.

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.

Dawn and Midnight Masses

Simbang Gabi lasts for nine consecutive days beginning December 16. Traditionally, it is held at dawn, but some parishes offer anticipated masses one night in advance. This religious event dates back to the time when Miguel Lopez de Legazpi celebrated the first feast of the Nativity in 1565 in the archipelago.

Simbang Gabi traces its roots in Mexico when, in 1587, Fray Diego de Soria, prior of the convent of San Agustin Acolman, petitioned the Pope for permission to hold Christmastide masses outdoors because the church could not accommodate the multitude that attended the dawn services. When the request was granted, the masses became known as Misa de Aguinaldo.

It was in the 16th century when Pope Sixtus V decreed that these pre-dawn masses be also held in the Philippines starting every December 16. The decree was in keeping with the nine-day traditional festivals of Filipinos in celebrating auspicious occasions like harvestime. It was also meant to give farmers a chance to hear mass before setting out for the fields. Rural Filipinos were used to starting the day two hours before sunrise.

Church bells ring to call the faithful to Simbang Gabi. In some provinces, brass bands play traditional Chirstmas music and parish priests would go as far as knocking on the doors of every home.

After the nine-day Simbang Gabi follows the Misa de Gallo (Mass of the Rooster). This is held on midnight of December 24 to welcome the birth of the Saviour. In some churches, the panunuluyan, depicting Mary and Joseph's efforts to find a suitable birthplace, is reenacted and the baby Jesus first makes his appearance in the manger of the Belen, the Nativity Scene.

Simbang gabi is said to have started in the 18th century by a Spanish friar who intended it as a novena for a bountiful harvest the following year. The friar was said to have timed the Misa de Gallo to culminate with the Misa de Aguinaldo, or the midnight mass on Christmas Eve, which was then followed by the family's noche buena or midnight meal. The masses were set at dawn to accommodate the farmers who had to attend to their fields during the day. After the harvest proves bountiful, the dawn Masses became an annual tradition.

A Sacrifice for God

Fr. Lito Jopson from the Archdiocese of Manila, explains that Simbang Gabi celebrating Simbang gabi from another part of the world aside from the Philippines can prove to be very interesting as well as inspiring.

"Imagine, even though it's freezing cold, Filipinos would still flock to their churches wearing barong while the women would put on their elegant ternos. One could feel nostalgia with choir singing Tagalog songs as "Pasko na Naman" and "Himig Pasko." After the mass, the parishioners are treated to a sumptuous Filipino dinner with the traditional puto, kutsinta, and bibingka to remind them of how wonderful it is to experience Christmas, the Filipino way," he said.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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