WE ALL know that Jesus Christ was born on December 25. Way back in the 16th century, Pope Sixtus V decreed that in the Philippines, pre-Christmas dawn masses (“Simbang Gabi”) would be held starting December 16. It is called “Simbang Gabi” because four o’clock in the morning is still dark.
The decree was in keeping with the nine-day festivals of Filipinos to celebrate special occasions. It was also intended for the farmers to have a chance to hear mass before starting to work in the fields. Filipino farmers always connect to San Isidro Labrador in their chapel to request God and His angels to help them.
Nine days of Filipino Christmas plus the European 12 days of Christmas from December 25 to January 6 make 18 days of Christmas holidays in our country. Christmas is the Westernization of our culture. Christmas itself is a Western tradition, and that Filipino culture is basically Hispanic, and also Western, amidst an oriental background.
Filipinos celebrate the longest Christmas season in the world. Radio stations and shopping malls begin playing Christmas jingles in September to rejoice that “Tigkiriwi” or “Tiempo Muerto” (Angst) is over. It is the commercialization of the celebration based on the business theme, “Christmas is buying and sharing”.
Based on tradition (a cultural heritage), on the first day of dawn mass (“Misa de Gallo” or “Simbang Gabi”) lanterns were hung from windows to light the way of the church goers. (Those were the days when villages were not so “livable” yet and Ceneco was unknown).
The roosters were key players in Misa de Gallo considering that the “indios” in the “pueblos” were not having wrist watches and wall clocks yet. “Gallo” in Spanish means rooster. The roosters would have more and prolonged crows at around 3:30 in the morning.
“Farol de natividad” (Christmas lanterns) that were hung from the windows of the nipa huts started as coconut oil lamps ... and later developed into a star structure using bamboo strips colored with rice paper (“papel de japon”) lavishly decorated with paper cuts and trimmings.
After the Simbang Gabi, our ancestors would go to the stalls in front of the church to buy “bibingka”, “puto bumbong” and “salabat”. Before the Simbang Gabi, carolers went from house to house, relating in songs how Joseph and Mary tried to look for an inn to give birth to Jesus, but instead found a stable. We call it “panuluyan” or “ang pagpanagbalay”.
“Belen” (nativity scene) is a symbol of our Hispanic Christmas but today what comes so popular is the presentation of Christmas trees. (Look at our malls!). It is a German tradition adopted by American and brought to the Philippines.
Christmas Eve was a time for family reunions. After midnight mass (misa de Aguinaldo), the whole family gathered together to thank God and later partake of native delicacies and imported foodstuffs from China, Europe and America. (This celebration was common among the “buena familias” of my hometown Silay.)
The meal was called “noche Buena”. As part of the celebration, family members and friends would exchange gifts. “Aguinaldo” (Spanish word) is funny, really. It means Christmas bonus. Government employees should know this. Let us celebrate Christmas with Christ in our hearts and minds ... not “Aguinaldo”. As Christians, we have to follow what the Celebrator wants ... love, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and charity.