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December 20, 2011 > Simbang Gabi prepares for Christmas

Simbang Gabi prepares for Christmas

By Julie Grabowski

As Christmas Day marches steadily closer, the Filipino community celebrates its coming with Simbang Gabi, a spiritual preparation for the most joyous of days, the birth of Jesus Christ. One of the longest and most popular traditions in the Philippines, Simbang Gabi is a series of nine pre-dawn masses, ending with a midnight mass on Christmas Eve.

Aptly meaning "mass at dawn," Simbang Gabi is also known by the Spanish name Misa de Gallo, or "mass of the rooster." The tradition's roots reach back to Mexico in the late 1500s, when the Pope granted permission for mass to be held out-of-doors at Christmas time because church buildings could not contain all of the people attending the evening mass. It is also said to have been arranged to accommodate the farmers who had to be out in their fields by dawn; the workers appeared noticeably tired at the evening masses after their long day.

From December 16 through 24, Catholic churches welcome devoted early risers to prayers, songs, and Scripture readings. It is common to see a reenactment of the "panuluyan," the journey of Mary and Joseph to find a birthplace for Jesus. A nativity scene, or "belen," is an important focus of the celebration, complete with shepherds, farm animals, wise men, and the guiding star of Bethlehem.

After the mass, food stalls outside the church offer traditional treats such as bibingka (rice cakes topped with carabao cheese and grated coconut), hot pandesal (breakfast roll), and puto bungbong (purple glutinous rice cakes steamed in bamboo cylinders sprinkled with grated coconut and brown sugar) along with cups of coffee or salabat (ginger tea).

When the final mass of the season has come to a close, families return home to celebrate Noche Buena with foods such as lechon (roasted pig), lumpia, pancit, kare-kare (oxtail stew in peanut butter sauce), rellenong manok (baked stuffed chicken), barbecue, rice, adobo, and Western and native rice cakes.

Christmas in the Philippines is celebrated with colorful lights and parols (lanterns) illuminating buildings inside and out, and Christmas songs maintain the festive spirit. Colored streamers, wreaths, and candles are common decorations, but the parol is the symbol of the Philippine Christmas, which represents the star of Bethlehem, as well as the warmth and hospitality of the season.

While an anticipation and celebration of Christ's birth, Simbang Gabi is also seen as a time for people to request blessings. Many believe that if one attends every morning mass, then what they have asked for will be granted. It is also a special time that strengthens family ties and faith in God. But whatever the mass attendance or wishes made, the gift of Jesus and blessings of the season are available to all, and are joyful reminders of the true riches found in Him.

Maligayang Pasko (Merry Christmas)!
Simbang Gabi
December, 16 - 24
5 a.m.
Holy Spirit Catholic Church
37588 Fremont Blvd., Fremont
(510) 797-1660

December, 16 - 24
5 a.m.
St. Edward Church
5788 Thornton Ave. (near Cedar Blvd.), Newark
(510) 797-0241

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