A Tale of Simbang Gabi

December has arrived. And as my favorite month progresses, one of the outstanding activities, among my birthday, workplace shutdown, and, of course, Christmas, is Simbang Gabi, a fixture in Filipino Catholic culture.

Simbang Gabi derives from the Misa de Gallo, or Rooster’s Mass, which was introduced by Spanish friars to allow farmers to attend mass before leaving for the fields. Simbang Gabi masses begin early in the morning, as the name suggests. Although this practice originated in the Philippines, the Filipino diaspora has brought Simbang Gabi to other countries.

I reside about 450 meters from Immaculate Conception parish as a grade school boy, so the pealing bells accompanied by a cacophony of Christmas carols that serve as the neighborhood’s wake-up call are a convenient reminder to get moving. But, far from completing the nine-day novena, my mother will only bring me to church on the sixth, so I can attend my birthday mass and light a candle in a shelter just next to the church.

But a lot has probably changed since then. Those who intend to attend Simbang Gabi must bring their own chairs as assured seats in the likely case of a full house, according to the comfortable seating offered to all parishioners. There must be something appealing about attending Simbang Gabi because, despite the fact that most people find it difficult to wake up, our church is crowded to the brim. There are numerous places for day masses. Attending all nine Masses is regarded as a form of devotion, and it is believed that finishing the series gives particular benefits and enhances the likelihood of one’s prayers being accomplished.

Christmas lantern

Soon after, I joined the Knights of the Altar Society, a school group whose principal role is to assist the parish priest during masses at the church. Simbang Gabi is one of our service’s highlights. It was a moment of excitement, anticipation, and, of course, a few blunders. Our club president would schedule us from candlebearers to crossbearers months in advance. The incense thurible and incense boat combo are the most desired duties because they allow the sacristans to “show off” their skills to the audience, which may include the girls they have a crush on.

The early mornings were one of the most difficult aspects of being an altar boy during Simbang Gabi. We had to get up at 4:00 a.m. to prepare for the 5:00 a.m. Mass. This was no easy task, especially for a teenager who needed to adjust their body clock abruptly. Many of us would acknowledge that at our first Simbang Gabi, we barely slept in order to arrive on time.

The display of Christmas lamps depicting numerous chapels hanging around the church perimeter before the ceremony showcased Filipino inventiveness. Some parols have moving parts like spinning pinwheels or rotating lights, while others are created from recycled materials like plastic bottles, soda cans, and old newspapers. Cash rewards encourage inventiveness, and winners will be revealed on Christmas Eve.

As individuals swiftly fill the chairs, one can ponder if he or she dressed appropriately. People wearing mismatched and unusual winter gear can be funny in a tropical climate, especially among those who attend church with a strong sense of observation.

“Unsa may nakaon niya,” one could casually mutter to a seatmate, alluding to someone committing a fashion faux pas by wearing that bulky fur jacket in 20C weather.

Going to church can sometimes make one sin more because of the overpowering impulse to make negative remarks about individuals talking during mass, not turning their phones to mute, or that woman whose winter coat draws unwanted attention.

There is constant pressure on sleep-deprived Simbang Gabi attendees to stay up. The desire to doze off grows stronger as the Simbang Gabi mass moves forward. Heads begin to sag, eyelids droop, and mouths slack as defeat approaches. Some may even be drooling, an undeniable sign of defeat in their battle against sleep.

That brief voyage to slumber is abruptly cut short as the priest, clearly aware of people dozing off, pauses his homily and exclaims in a booming voice,

“Pagmata, higala diha ni Kristo!”

They felt a rush of adrenaline, their eyes wide open. Some looked around sheepishly, while others tried to hide their shame by coughing or clearing their throats. The priest’s comments had effectively disrupted their dreams and returned them to the reality of the Mass. These relatable anecdotes and amusing remarks must be included in a priest’s homily to keep the audience awake.

Pets and stray dogs may occasionally walk around the church, especially near the altar, oblivious to what’s going on and offering an amusing distraction for spectators.

Meanwhile, those sitting outside the chapel could scarcely hear what was going on inside. After the Mass, the smells of street food carts providing breakfast can lead to amusing occasions when tummies grumble noisily during the prayers or preaching, producing a wave of laughter. However, the chitchat around them managed to hide that gut growl.

As the service closes, commotion ensues as people rush to the exits, even though the choir hasn’t finished the recessional hymn. People move their chairs. Children who have been separated from their parents begin to cry in unison. The church commerce begins with the serving of Filipino foods such as bibingka, puto bumong, suman, hot chocolate, or coffee to hungry parishioners.

Attendees, or at least those expecting to have their wishes granted, can then cross one day off the list, hoping to make it tomorrow and continue the streak until it ends on Christmas Eve.

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