February 29, 2024

One of the most enduring Christian traditions of Christmas is the Simbang Gabi or the Misa de Gallo or Misa de Aguinaldo, which was introduced by the Spanish friars at the beginning of the Catholic evangelization of our country.
It is called Misa de Gallo because it is held when roosters (gallo in Spanish) crowed to announce the dawning of a new day and specifically to allow the farmers to attend the mass before going to work on the fields. Simbang Gabi is the Filipino term because it would still be dark when the faithful would flock to church for nine consecutive evening masses during Advent from Dec. 16 to 24, in preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ. It is, therefore, a spiritual preparation for Christmas.
Many devout Catholics believe that by completing the nine dawn masses, their wishes would be granted. Others do so, as a way of thanksgiving for favors granted, as such it is called Misa de Aguinaldo.
During yuletide season, churches are beautifully decorated with bright colorful lights and small Christmas lanterns adorning every post surrounding the nave and aisles. The central attraction is the Nativity scene of baby Jesus in a manger with mother Mary and St. Joseph beside Him, angels, shepherds, lambs and animals, and the Three Kings, all surrounding baby Jesus in adoration, and a star lantern above them.
As a practicing Catholic since childhood, I knew Christmas was in the air the moment my mother would wake us up siblings at dawn to attend the Simbang Gabi mass at the Baguio Cathedral, which was one of the only two churches then existing in Baguio, the other being the Saint Vincent’s Church.
We would obediently pile up on our dad’s open jeepney, most of the time still rubbing our eyes off the traces of slumber and snuggling close to each other to keep warm from the December cold and foggy weather.
The Christmas carols sung by the church choir would greet us and other churchgoers as we entered the cathedral with the amber fragrance of incense filling the air. Us, children knew too that came that evening was the start of our caroling in the neighborhood. My mom would lead us to a pew nearest to the pulpit so we could listen well to the sermon of the priest.
I remember when I saw a pulpit for the first time, I asked my father why it is raised from the ground and higher than the pews. He explained to me that in the “olden days” a loudspeaker was not yet invented such that pulpits had to be erected farther from the alter so that the officiating priest could render his sermon (now called homily) at the pulpit and be heard by all the faithful in church. Even the acoustics of a church, for that purpose, was taken into consideration when they were constructed (today, many churches in Europe are used as venues for concerts).
Back then, all the priests who officiated masses that we attended were Belgian priests, no Filipino priest were yet at that time assigned in Baguio. Listening to their sermons was a struggle for us children especially when the priest would garble his English with a European accent delivered nasally.
Some would speak softly such that we are lulled to sleep only to be awakened by the nudge of our seatmate by the end of the homily. Other speakers though have such a booming voice that keeps you entirely awake during the homily, especially at the crescendo of a sentence mostly emphasizing your damnation into hell once you commit a sin.
There were also priests who delivered entertaining homilies that bordered into what we consider today as stand-up comedy. But in the end, we would look forward to the end of the mass with the singing of yet another Christmas carol.
Unlike in the provinces where the church yard would be filled with vendors selling puto bumbong, bibingka, suman, and chocolate, in Baguio, we would head for home where awaits us is breakfast consisting of champorado with tinapa, hot pandesal with butter, rice-coffee or fresh milk from the dairy farm of Rogelio de la Rosa – then a famous actor-turned senator. Some of us would then go back to bed and gather energy for the start of our Christmas carolling in the evening, having earned the permission to do so with our attendance of the Misa de Gallo.