Have you ever walked a road at night with your path lit only by starlight? In the barrios of the Philippines, stars are the lamps that guide the nighttime traveler. During the Advent and Christmas seasons, one will find parols (star lanterns) hanging from windows. Bamboo sticks and rice paper form a three-dimensional star in which a light bulb or candle is placed so it may glow.
Parols come from the Filipino celebration of Simbang Gabi or “church in the night.” The Catholic missionaries in the Philippines in the 16th century, conscious of the work schedule of the townspeople, began celebrating Mass early in the morning before farmers began their work in the fields and after the fishermen came in from their night’s work. This allowed the whole community to gather for Eucharist, catechesis, and fellowship. Parols lit their way to the church.
Simbang Gabi dates back to 1587 when Fray Diego Soria, prior of the convent of San Agustin Acolman in Mexico, asked the Pope for permission to hold Posadas (a nine-day commemoration of Mary and Joseph’s search for an inn to birth Jesus) outdoors because the church was not large enough to accommodate the many faithful wishing to attend. Though his request was granted, it was not until the 17th century that the nine-day religious celebration was introduced to the Philippines by missionaries and became a Filipino spiritual tradition.
In the 17th century, many Filipinos were fishermen or farmers who rose or ended their days with the dawn. To avoid the intense heat of mid-day, other laborers also began adhering to a schedule which began with the rooster’s call at crack of dawn. Due to the work schedules of the Filipino people, missionaries realized the best time to gather people together was at dawn. It was then that the missionaries introduced the devotion to the Virgin Mary, which takes place the nine days leading up to Christmas, to the Philippines. Since Mass began as early as 4:00 a.m. during these nine days, the Masses became known as the Misa de Gallo, Spanish for Mass of the rooster. Other names associated with these Masses are Misa de Aguinaldo, Spanish for Mass of the gift, or the Simbang Gabi, Filipino for night Mass.
These Masses came to be known as Misa Aurea or “golden Mass” or Misa de Gallo (“Mass of the rooster”) because they were celebrated at dawn. The Masses celebrated the Incarnation of the Word through Mary’s “yes.” They were festive celebrations with Christmas carols sung before Mass, catechesis, faith sharing, and of course, lots of food afterward. These nine days embodied God’s desire to be human and the Filipino’s joy for that humanness.