– By Adolphe, sx –
O Emmanuel, Come! This cry of most of the Christians in this Advent season signals the start of the Christmas novena, the nine-day countdown to the Feast of the Lord’s Nativity. It is also the time when Christians’ preparation and expectation of the coming of the Lord Jesus reaches its peak.
Indeed, in the first day of the novena, one could easily catch the whiff of this intense preparation and expectation in the huge crowd of people flowing enthusiastically to their respective churches or area chapels early in the morning to attend the Eucharistic celebration.
In the Philippines, the Christmas novena bears a particular feature, that is, a series of “dawn masses” for nine consecutive days before Christmas Day, commonly called simbang gabi, literally ‘Night Worship’. It is known by two other names as well: Misa de Gallo, ‘Mass at the Cockcrow’ because of the specific time in which it was celebrated, and Aguinaldo Mass, ‘Gift Mass,’ the attendance at the Mass being the gift to the Holy Child. Others believe that attending Mass early in the morning is a sign of penitence which expresses the faithful readiness to welcome the Lord Jesus at any time. Lastly, this Mass is celebrated at dawn to symbolize the victory of the light over the darkness, that is, the coming of Lord Jesus to triumph over the darkness of death and sin.
From a historical standpoint, in the Philippines, Simbang gabi traces its origin back to the Spanish era where it aimed mainly at pastoral reasons. In fact, it was introduced as a practical compromise to enable farmers who had to work in the fields early in the morning to join the novena Masses celebrated as Rorate Masses in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Advent. Concretely, on the stroke of 4 in the morning, church bells toll to awake and remind the faithful that the Mass is about to start in a few minutes.
When seen from a liturgical perspective, as mentioned earlier, the dawn Masses or Simbang gabi goes back to Rorate Masses which is still celebrated even today, white vestments are used and the Gloria, suppressed in Advent, is also joyously sung. In these Eucharistic celebrations, aside from the organ, other accompaniment instruments such as tambourines, triangle, castanets and guitars are allowed. Basically, a joyous atmosphere colors the whole celebration.
All the above perspectives converge to an attempt to explain the celebration of the Christmas novena in the Philippines: the meaning of simbang gabi or dawn Masses, its origin and its liturgical celebration. By way of review, Christmas novena is solemnly and joyously celebrated in the Philippines through dawn Masses or Simbang gabi which start from December 16 to 24. It is a cherished Christmas custom and bears a distinct feature of the Filipino culture. In this celebration, we, missionaries join our voices in unison with that of the local people’s in crying, shouting and singing Halina Jesus! (Come Lord Jesus!)
 Bruce T. Morrill, “Advent and Christmas: Seeking the Spirituality of the Seasons [From Advent into Christmas (O Emmanuel, Come: the ‘O’ Antiphons)]” in Vatican II Weekday Missal with the New Weekday Lectionary (Pasay City: Daughters of St. Paul, 2002) 121.
 For more information regarding the historicity of Simbang gabi, see at: http://www2.richmonddiocese.org/obc/Simbang_Gabi_History.pdf and also at: http://anglicanusephilippines.blogspot.com/2010/12/simbang-gabi-misa-de-gallo-dawn-mass.html
 Sonny Evangelista, Pre-dawn mass to celebrate the coming of Christ: Novena mass at 4 am as people in the country and cities gather to thank ‘Christ the Light’ who overcomes darkness; see at: http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Pre-dawn-mass-to-celebrate-the-coming-of-Christ-2160.html
Sonny Evangelista, Pre-dawn mass to celebrate the coming of Christ.
 A clarification offered on the celebration of Simbang gabi by Father Timothy Offrasio, a liturgist and teacher at Loyola School of Theology.