In a few days the famed tradition of the Filipino is about to be completed. Simbang Gabi (“mass of the cock” in literal terms), or a ten-day mass marathon leading to Christmas day, is so etched in our Christmas tradition that it would be hard to imagine December in the Philippines.
We thus trooped to the city cathedral, not to join this religious tradition, but to observe the activities of the attending San Pableños. The cathedral was literally jam packed out to the main door. The parking grounds are all occupied to and sprinkled here and there with bystanders either enjoying the early morning rice delicacies or doing selfies in front of the big Christmas tree erected outside. Perhaps in the Philippine setting the religious and amusement motivations get blurred on many occasions.
Such merriment is no longer foreign in the country. In a description of a foreign writer:
“Should he be fortunate enough to have arrived towards the end of the year, in addition to the greater coolness of the weather then usually prevalent, and so delightful in the tropics, he will most probably not want opportunities for enjoying himself; as, after suffering a penitential confinement to the house during the long rainy season, for some time before Christmas, the cool nights and other circumstances induce the residents to break out into greater gaiety than is prevalent at other seasons of the year; and amusement, about that time, generally appears to be the order of the day.” *
The Nativity Scene too goes back to the time of the Spanish Colonial Period:
On the last day or the vigil of the feast, a pleasing, although simple Belen was made at one side of the presbytery in which were placed the images of the Child, Mary, and Joseph.**
And although I have only attended a Christmas Eve mass once during my college days, I cannot recall an elaborate bell ringing such as described during the Spanish times:
“Christmas eve came, and at eleven o’clock the bells were rung loudly, and from half past eleven until twelve, a continual ringing of bells two at a time announced to the people that the mass called Gallo was to be celebrated in memory of that holy hour in which the eternal Son of God the Father, made man in the most pure entrails of the Virgin Mary willed to be born on that poor and abandoned manger threshold [portal de Belen]. Hence when twelve o’clock had struck, the missa-cantata was said, which was followed by the adoration of the holy Child. That was made enjoyable by the singing of some fine Christmas carols. The twenty-fifth dawned bright and joyful.”***
Christmas day proves to be not much different with all the singing and gift giving and the confidence to ask for Christmas presents:
“At eight o’clock in the morning solemn mass was celebrated, which was chanted according to custom by the choir of singers of the church, with the accompaniment of two flutes and a tambourine. About one hundred persons took communion at it. There was a sermon, and at the end of the mass, there was another adoration of the Child Jesus.
“At the end of the function, the authorities and chiefs of the village came to visit us as they are wont to do during all the great feasts of the year. After that the musicians and singers congratulated us for the good Christmas from the hall of the convent, with toccatas according to the custom of this country, and Christmas carols. After them followed a crowd of people of all classes. What arrested my attention most was the liberty with which they went up and down stairs, hither and thither, and addressed the fathers and begged for what they needed. I will say it: the convent appeared nothing more nor less than a Casa-Pairal.
“Since the ceremonies of the morning were so long, nothing was done in the afternoon except to have the adoration of the holy Child, a thing which those excellent and simple people enjoy greatly and never tire of doing. With that the feast of the nativity of our Lord ended.”****
As a last note, with all our lavish food today that are being prepared for the traditional Noche Buena, it would be good to add–particularly by those who are historically inclined–the nougat from Surigao (I am yet to see whether it is still existing) which absence, they say, would not complete the joyous Christmas celebrations.
* Robert Mac Micking. Recollections of Manilla and the Philippines During 1848, 1849 and 1850, p.18. (The Project Gutenberg EBook)
** The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898. Volume XLIII, 1670-1700. E. H. Blair (Ed.), p. 226
*** The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898. Volume XLIII, 1670-1700. E. H. Blair (Ed.), p. 226
**** The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898. Volume XLIII, 1670-1700. E. H. Blair (Ed.), p. 226-227