Tomorrow at dawn, Filipinos (who can wake up very very early) will troop to the churches to attend the Simbang Gabi mass at 4:00 AM. This is a uniquely Filipino Christmas liturgical celebration and is a novena of 9 dawn masses. The diocesan committees of the Philippines has this to say about this liturgical tradition. The Dawn Mass honors the babe by honoring His mother. This is so Filipino.
The Simbang Gabi is truly Filipino catholic and Catholic. Non Roman churches have also adopted the practice. The Methodists and United Churches have nine days of dawn services. The Episcopal Church in the Philippines has the liturgy in its Book of Common Prayer, the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) which has its origins in the Roman Catholic Church has preserved the tradition with dawn masses and some Orthodox missions in the Philippines have nine days of dawn Divine Liturgies.
The Philippine Catholic Church in plenary council in 1953 applied to Rome for an indult to celebrate this mass. This was granted in 1961 by Pope John XXIII. The indult is for the festive celebration of the series of masses with the alleluia, gloria and carols sung and white vestments worn by the priest, deacons and mass servers. Since the masses fall within Advent, a season of penitence, an indult was necessary.
Rome recognized that for Filipinos, Christmas is not only on December 25 but is from December 16 to the feast of the Epiphany!
Pope John Paul II said in a homily in Mexico that the Church "respects and fosters the qualities and talents of the various races and nations. Anything in these people’s way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error, she studies with sympathy, and, if possible, preserves intact. She sometimes even admits such things into the liturgy itself, provided they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit”"
The Church because she is Catholic and when she encounters another culture, crowns that culture and if the cultural practices are in harmony with the truths she preaches, she preserves this patrimony.
And this is the reason why the Catholic Church can take in (or for better terms, recover what has been lost) Anglican religious expressions! The Church becomes more Catholic in the process.
Simbang Gabi is celebrated everywhere in the world where Filipinos are found. When I was in outback Australia, I was able to finish the novena of masses since there was a Filipino community served by a Filipino missionary priest.
There are traditions that are linked with the dawn masses. The churches are well lit and Parols or Christmas Star lanterns are to be found everywhere. Food stalls sell puto bumbong, hot chocolate and arroz caldo. Small children are brought to mass sleepy eyed but are instantly awoken by promises of eating puto bumbong after the mass (of course toys are more effective and toy sellers are also found in the churchyard!). Grown-ups look forward to eating arroz caldo.
In the past the Mass was celebrated to allow farmers to praise God before tilling the fields at daybreak. Even the party animal was catered for. The Spanish era party animal or soltero "bachelor" always attended the Mass after a night of tertulias after which he hit the sack at dawn.
Today call center agents, physicians, nurses, police officers and other workers who have night duties attend the Mass after their shifts. In traffic hellish Manila, workers wake up early to commute and find time to attend the Mass before work starts.
Climate change has finally caught up with Simbang Gabi. In the past people reveled in the nippy atmosphere (17-18 C, quite chilly for a tropical country) and wore sweaters even in Manila expecting to eat puto bumbong and arroz caldo afterwards! But the weather bureau predicts a warm 25 C this 2010 season!
Filipino tradition says that anyone who finishes the series of 9 dawn masses will be blessed in the coming New Year! But that is easier said than done. Waking up at 3 AM for nine days can cause sleep deprivation for many people that they end up like Scrooges by Christmas!
Of course there are abuses to the tradition and the local diocesan bishops have taken notice. One is the innovation of having "anticipated" Simbang Gabi at 8 PM! The whole idea is contrary to the essence of the tradition. The papal indult specifically specified mass at dawn. Of course one can attend Masses in a Godly hour but the Mass will be in Advent mode and not in Simbang Gabi mode!
And so the Philippines has the longest liturgical Christmas season in the world which starts on December 16 and in all practicality goes beyond Epiphany and ends in the Feast of the Holy Child or the Santo Nino in mid January. And come to think of it, if we speak of the commercial sense, Christmas in the Philippines starts on September 1 and in reality never ends!