History and Culture

What Is The Purpose of Simbang Gabi?

Metro Manila

Gari Sy Rivera
Gari Sy Rivera | Jan 06, 2020

Photos by author

Beginning in the late 17th century, Simbang Gabi (Night mass) is a Filipino Christmas tradition that started during the Spanish colonial era in the Philippines. These Catholic masses were purposely initiated and held during dusk and dawn to cater to the farmers and laborers who had to work during the day, giving them the opportunity to attend the masses and honor the celebration of Christmas.

The tradition of masses and novenas lives on in the Philippines, honored and practiced still by Filipinos all over the country in almost all local Catholic churches during the Christmas season- for tradition and devotion, particularly during the nine days approaching Christmas day. Bells are rung as a sign that services are starting, churches here are decorated and lit up for the festive season.

Nakahiligan na rin po kasi, na bilang Katoliko, magsimbang gabi,” a local at the San Roque Cathedral shares. (It became a habit as a Catholic to attend Simbang Gabi.)

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Locals attend Simbang Gabi, no matter how early or how cold the season’s breeze is as an act of worship and praise. The overflowing number of attendees commonly outnumber the seating capacity of churches and cathedrals, leading crowds to fill streets and spaces outside the sanctuary doors. Attendees of the San Roque Cathedral in Caloocan, Metro Manila shared how their participation in Simbang Gabi is mostly directed towards the practicing of their faith. “Pag madaling araw kasi, masarap mag simbang gabi. Wala ka namang ginagawa, doon lang lagi sa bahay tsaka trabaho. Para yung oras naman mabigyan sa pagsimba,” reveals one attendee. (It feels good to attend Simbang Gabi early in the morning. We’re always at home or at work and we don’t do anything there, it’s good to give time to the Church.) "Favorite part ko ng Simbang Gabi yung madaming natututunan kay Father, yung mga dapat gawin, yung mga kwento ng salita ng Diyos,” says another. (My favorite part of Simbang Gabi is  how we learn a lot from Father about the things we should do and the stories told from the Word of God.)

[related: Have the Most Unforgettable Simbang Gabi: 9 Awe-Inspiring Churches in the Visayas]

Father Geronimo Maria Jose Cruz also expresses how the celebration of Simbang Gabi by the Filipinos is focused on commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ. “Ito ay napakagandang panahon para magkaroon ng tunay na pag-unawa sa napakagandang katotohanan na ang Diyos ay naging tao para makipagmuhay sa atin, at para tayo ay iligtas mula sa kasalanan, sa kasamaan,” he shares, also adding that the tradition serves as a way of ultimately practicing their beliefs, “Ito ay napakagandang panahon sa catechesis, yung pagpapalalim ng pananampalataya, sa pag-unawa ng Salita ng Diyos. Kaya Harinawa, ito ay magandang tradisyong Pilipino.” (This is a truly beautiful season to have a greater understanding of how God became man, to live with us and save us of our sins. It’s a beautiful season to practice Cathecesism, deepening our faith and understanding of the Word of God. It’s a great Filipino Tradition.)

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Masaya siya kasi alam mo na ang pinaghahandaan mo ay yung mismong kapaskuhan. Madami na ding iba’t ibang mga tradisyon na naging kaakibat nito, yung sama-sama yung mga magkakaibigan, pupunta sa simbahan,” says Fr. Geronimo, explaining how the tradition of Simbang Gabi has created even more traditions in relation to it.  (It’s joyous because it's preparation for Christmas itself. There are a lot of different traditions linked to Simbang Gabi, such as friends going to church together.)

Most attend Simbang Gabi with their family and friends in the company of other believers of faith to pray for those they love. “Nagsisimbang gabi ako para pinagdasal yung mga mahal ko sa buhay,” an attendee here shares. (“I attened Simbang Gabi to pray for my loved ones.”

[related: In Ilocos Norte, Gorgeous Native Lanterns Handcrafted by Students]

After attending the masses, most attendees love to buy fresh kakanin sold outside the churches to warm up their mornings together. Kakanin dishes are native Filipino rice delicacies found widely across the country throughout the year, but for the holiday seasons, specific recipes of these are craved and enjoyed, such as baked rice cakes called Bibingka and purple rice cakes called Puto Bumbong.

Filipinos here have shared of the many purposes they have behind commemorating Simbang Gabi, such as to get closer to God, learn from their sins, and even fulfill the saying of how a complete attendance of the nine-day masses will fulfill what their heart wishes. But the Simbang Gabi message that should be imprinted on their hearts and minds, as told by  Father Geronimo, should ultimately be the reason for the season. “Maramdaman nila, na tagos sa puso na mahal na mahal sila ng Diyos, na ang Diyos ay naging Tao. Iyon yung pinaka mensahe- kung gaano sila kamahal ng Diyos.”(Attendees should feel it in their hearts, how they are deeply loved by God. How he became man, and that should be the message of how much the Lord loves them.”)

ALSO READ: If These Beautiful PH Churches Won't Convince You To Attend Simbang Gabi, Nothing Will

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