The Simbang-Gabi (Evening Mass) is a traditional and devotional novena Mass practiced by the Catholic churches in the Philippines in anticipation of the solemnity of the Birth of the Savior and in honour of His mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, which begins on December 16th until the 24th at 4:00-5:00 AM. But, how did it begin?
The tradition of midnight mass on Christmas Eve was first chronicled by Egeria, the Galician woman who went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land around AD 381–384. She witnessed how the early Christians of Jerusalem honored the Christmas mystery with a midnight vigil at Bethlehem. This was followed by a torchlight procession to Jerusalem, arriving at the Church of the Resurrection at dawn.
Half a century later, Pope Sixtus III, inspired by the midnight vigil, instituted the practice of a midnight mass after the cockcrow in the grotto-like oratory of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. In 1587, Fray Diego de Soria, the head monk of the convent of St. Augustine Acolman in Mexico, was permitted by Pope Sixtus V to hold Holy Masses outdoors to accommodate the large number of faithful attendees for the evening celebration. The same pope ordered that Mass be heard before sunrise since it was the harvest season, and the farmers needed to be in the fields right after the celebration.
This practice was eventually brought to the Philippines in 1669 by the Spanish friars who came to the archipelago during that specific period wherein the Philippines was still governed under the Spanish rule directly through the Viceroy of New Spain (Mexico), Don Antonio Sebastián de Toledo Molina y Salazar, Second Marquis of Mancera (1664-1673), until the Mexican independence in 1821. The evening Masses then were held at midnight (hatinggabi) for the Filipino fishermen and farmers who wanted to participate in the Breaking of the Bread but did not want to leave their works at daytime. It is from thence that the said tradition has gotten its name — Simbang-Gabi.
Furthermore, the First Plenary Council of the Philippines in 1953 made a formal petition to the Holy See for Simbang Gabi. The Papal Indult was granted with these conditions: “On the nine days preceding the Nativity of our Lord, starts December 16, the solemn votive Mass Rorate Coeli Desuper ‘Drop down dew, O heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down righteousness’ is sung especially in parish and convent churches, but only once a day with great solemnity and with a big attendance of the faithful.” On March 24, 1961, the Holy See further granted the continuation of this Indult for five years. Since then, everywhere in the Philippines, the Simbang Gabi and Misa del Gallo is celebrated with great solemnity.
On the other, Misa del Gallo (Spanish for rooster’s mass) is the name for the Holy Mass celebrated around midnight of Christmas Eve. It is called as such because of the farmers who, upon waking-up due to the first crow, dropped by the local church to celebrate the Eucharist. Meanwhile, Misa de Aguinaldo (Spanish for gift mass) is another term for Simbang-Gabi, the novena Masses in preparation of the faithful to receive from God the greatest gift of all or the aguinaldo — Jesus Christ the Savior of the world.
“As we prepare for the celebration of the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ through the unique Filipino Catholic tradition of Simbang Gabi, may the faith and devotion of Mary, the Mother of God and the Mother of the Filipino nation, inspire us to receive in our hearts and home God’s surpassing Aguinaldo in the person of Jesus Christ” (Guidelines in the Celebration of Simbang-Gabi in the Archdiocese of Manila, no. 9).