When it comes to Christmas, no one celebrates it better than the Filipinos. The Philippines is known for celebrating the longest Christmas season in the world.
One of the common celebration is to watch a play called Panunuluyan – a tradition observed in some provinces in the Philippines. The Panunuluyan dramatizes the search for lodging of St Joseph and the very pregnant Virgin Mary. Originally, the images of the two, atop decorated carrozas, are processioned on Christmas eve and taken from house to house, in re-enactment of that event in Bethlehem. The images are preceded by altar boys bearing ciriales (cross and candles on poles) and devotees. Eventually, real people, instead of santos, were cast to assume the roles of Jose and Maria, almost always respectable citizens of the town. The dramatis personae expanded to include the 3 Magis, Melchor, Gaspar and Baltazar and even a Narrator and a Koro, a Chorus of singers who sang and delivered verses for the Holy Couple.
This tradition may have been adopted from Mexican Posadas and is usually re-enacted after the last Mass before Christmas eve.
Today is the first day of the Simbang Gabi – a nine-day novena which starts December 16 and ends on December 24. It is celebrated at 4:30 in the morning. But in recent years, when masses are also regularly held in chapels and other places outside of the main church, simbang gabis are held during evenings – at 7:00, 8:00 or 9:00 depending on the availability of the priest celebrant.
But the original practice is to hold it at dawn; at hours before the sun rises. It is common among former colonies of Spain. The friars convinced the catholic converts to prepare themselves for the celebration of the birth of the Saviour; and what more fitting preparation there is but to attend nine-day novena mass. The problem however, is that the subjects have to be in their agricultural fields early, so as a compromise, the clergy began to hold Mass early dawn when the land would still be dark. In fact, it was so dark going to church from their homes that the faithful brought with them lanterns or parol… which later on took various shapes… and eventually into the shape of a star – the Christmas lanterns of today we are familiar with.
I remember with fondness the simbang gabi of my youth, in Padada, Davao del Sur. Misa de Gallo, as we called it, was an event that everybody looked forward to. Parishioners filled-up the church every day of the simbang gabi. Every mass was sponsored by one or two socio-civic organization, a church-based group, school-based youth organization or barangay units. The mass sponsors provided the lectors, commentators, collectors, altar servers, the choir and any and all tasks attendant to celebrating the mass.
It was not only a religious celebration; it was a social event as well. People looked around which ones of the mass goers are wearing new clothes. Some checked out what the offerors give as gifts for to make sure they will give something different when their designated day as offerors come. Kids greeted their godparents and subtly reminded them of the coming Christmas Day (and their gifts). To the teenagers and the singles it was an opportunity to see their crushes and special friends. The bolder ones sat beside them during the mass, and walked them back to their house after. Those with political ambitions lingered around after the mass and met as many people as possible.
But it is what cams after the mass that everybody looked forward to – the early morning “painit” that awaited you when you came back from the church; or the “painit” that you bought after hearing mass and before going home. The painit can be any or all of the following: bibingka, torta, suman, and biko with tsokolate or brewed coffee as the accompanying hot drink. If the lady of the house had not cooked or bought any native delicacy, the family shared a fare of pandesal with margarine bought from a neighbourhood bakery.
But even among families that had no “painit” awaiting them when they come home from mass, the simbang gabi was still something they look forward to. For one, while waiting out for the sun to rise, family members talked among themselves and consequently had some quality bonding moments. Moreover, completing the whole nine day novena without fail has its rewards. It is said that when if you make a wish on the first day of the mass and when you completed the nine day mass, your wish will be granted.