Simbang Gabi- A Time-Honored Filipino Tradition - Global Storybook

Simbang Gabi: A Time-Honored Christmas Tradition

Tanya Marie Porras

Tanya Marie Porras

Tanya Marie Porras is the Local Contributing Writer at Global Storybook (Philippines).
Tanya Marie Porras

Pinoys are a people of tradition.  Come the 16th of December, when the clock strikes 3am – they wake up, dress up, and go to church.  They’ll attend a mass that day, return home, and do the same thing tomorrow… and the next day after.

Filipinos from all walks of life give importance to this time-honored tradition.  Groups of families and friends, street vendors, urban professionals, and even average Joes are among the churchgoers this time around.  Some locals, who would not normally start their day before 10am, are even defying their own routines for this.  They do it to participate in… Simbang Gabi.

What Is Simbang Gabi?

Name: Simbang Gabi

Description: an annual nine-day practice of attending a religious mass in anticipation of Christmas

Other names: Misa de Aguinaldo, Night Mass

Dates: lasts from December 16 to December 24

Time: (about) 1 hour

Philippines Filipino Nativity Ideas and Decorations - Global StorybookInteresting Facts:

  • It’s also a familiar practice to other communities in Spain, Mexico, and Puerto Rico
  • The final mass is called Misa de Gallo (which is a Spanish term for the “Rooster’s Mass”)
  • It usually starts at around 3:30am, or earlier

In a nutshell, Simbang Gabi is a pre-celebration of Christmas.  Filipinos know that a revered occasion is coming, and they’re more than willing to give it a grand welcome.

As the History goes…

Some people say that Simbang Gabi was a result of an announcement by Pope Sixtus V of a decree that pre-dawn masses were to be held in the Philippines on December 16.  And, of course the church officials were happy to oblige.

On top of that, the year 1669 also made it into the history books.  In this year, during the Spanish rule, the first Simbang Gabi was held.  It was meant as a practical compromise for the farmers who were normally off to work before sunrise.

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As this practice grew, more and more Filipinos realized the benefits of going to church early – including priests and other church members.  For the most part, locals started to favor an early trip to the church because it improved their productivity.

For example, if a typical workday begins at 8:00am, a 1-hour mass at 3:30am wouldn’t obstruct any of the professional duties.  Meanwhile, if you’re at work and would want to attend a mass which would typically start at 10:00am, you would have to put on pause whatever you’re doing, to run to the church.

The Imus Cathedral in Imus, Cavite, Philippines, lit for Christmas - Global Storybook

The Imus Cathedral in Imus, Cavite, Philippines

Did You Know?

It’s hard to picture Filipinos going through a Christmas season without Simbang Gabi.  But it actually happened once – in fact, Simbang Gabi was out of the picture for nine straight years.

From 1680 to 1689 under the Archbishop Felipe Pardo of the Archdiocese of Manila, Filipinos were strictly discouraged from participating in this beloved Christmas tradition.  It was due to the perverse behavior of some churchgoers.  And also because of the curfew restriction at that time.

After the respectable Archbishop’s passing, other high officials agreed on one thing – the tradition came with positive effects.  It taught discipline, devotion, sacrifice and responsibility to the people.  Most importantly, it gave Filipinos a reason to look forward to Christmas.  Thus, they quickly came out with great news: Simbang Gabi was officially back!

The Tradition Shall Live on

Filipinos found the continuation of Simbang Gabi’s practice a delight!  After all, this tradition is a way for us to celebrate our faith.  The majority of Pinoys are Christians and about 80% of this majority are Catholics.  Because of this fact they consider Christmas one of the most important holidays in our country.

If you think that Simbang Gabi is practiced only in the Philippines – you’re mistaken.  Filipino communities around the world are also fans of this old Christmas tradition.

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“Wherever the Filipinos are, they continue the tradition,” says a priest named Father Dado Haber.  In US (Los Angeles) The Filipino Ministry of LA authorizes the annual celebration of Simbang Gabi masses.  In Australia (Sydney) masses are also held every 16th to the 24th of December, at the Our Lady of Dolours Church.

Moreover, Pinoys like to believe.  They like to believe in something positive.  They also like to believe that when they do a good deed – a heavenly reward is awaiting them on the other side.  Simbang Gabi is a great way for them to exercise that.

Life size Christmas lanterns depicting typical Filipino customs and traditions - Global Storybook

Life-size Christmas lanterns depicting typical Filipino customs and traditions. Photo: patrimonio designs ltd/

A Modern-Day Celebration

The premise behind Simbang Gabi remains the same – to honor the coming of Christmas.  However, over the years, the tradition has changed, for the better.  Long gone are the days when Simbang Gabi was just a practical alternative to the late-day masses.

Nowadays, Simbang Gabi is much more colorful.  On your way to the church (and back to your home), you will encounter a lineup of merry-making elements, like:

  • bands playing traditional Spanish songs
  • brightly-lit star-shaped lanterns
  • tolling church bells
  • street vendors selling traditional Filipino treats (such as puto and bibingka)
  • and many others.

Paper lightning lantern in star form, christmas decoration, Philippines - Global StorybookFinal Thoughts

If you’re in the Philippines during the Christmas season, a memorable experience is waiting for you.  You will have a chance to experience the united spirit of the Pinoys as they welcome Christmas.  So, wake up early and attend a Simbang Gabi!  Don’t miss your chance!

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Simbang Gabi: A Time-Honored Christmas Tradition - Global Storybook

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