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Simbáng Gabi (Filipino for "Night Mass") is a devotional nine-day series of Masses practised by Roman Catholics and Aglipayans in the Philippines in anticipation of Christmas and to honour the Blessed Virgin Mary. The masses are held daily from December 16 to December 24, and occur at different times ranging from as early as 03:00 to 05:00 PST. On the last day of the Simbang Gabi, which is Christmas Eve, the service is instead called Misa de Gallo (Spanish for "Rooster's Mass").
The Simbáng Gabi originated in the early days of Spanish rule over the Philippines as a practical compromise for farmers, who began work before sunrise to avoid the noonday heat out in the fields. Priests began to say Mass in the early mornings instead of the evening novenas more common in the rest of the Hispanic world. This cherished Christmas custom eventually became a distinct feature of Philippine culture and became a symbol of sharing.
Spanish-Era agricultural practices
The Philippines is an agricultural country known for its rice, coconut and sugarcane plantations. Many tenant farmers (also known as sacadas, campesinos, and casamacs) toiled all day with one break during noon when the heat would be at its peak. Losing an hour due to the unbearable temperatures, farmers worked hard and budgeted their time out of fear of the local encargado, who administered land for the Spanish feudal lord or encomendero/hacendero.
In between the planting and harvest seasons is a lull in the work imposed on natives. Those who were old enough to provide manual labour were gathered under the tributo system where men would have to work for free for the Spanish colonial government's building projects. The women also have their share of work tending to their vegetable gardens or tumana and as household help for the local political elite.
When the Christmas season would begin, it was customary to hold novenas in the evenings, but the priests saw that the people would attend despite the day's fatigue. As a compromise, the clergy began to hold Mass in the early dawn when the land would still be dark before people went out to till the land.
During the Spanish Era and early American Period, the parishioners would mostly have nothing to offer during Mass except sacks of rice, fruits and vegetables and fresh eggs. These were graciously accepted by the priests, who besides keeping a portion for themselves, would share the produce in with the rest of the parishioners after the service.
Today, local delicacies are readily available in the church's premises for the parishioners. The iconic puto bumbóng, bibingka, suman and other rice pastries are cooked on the spot. Latík and yema are sweets sold to children, while biscuits like uraró (arrowroot), barquillos, lengua de gato and otap (ladyfingers) are also available. Kape Barako, a very strong coffee grown in the province of Batangas), hot tsokolate, or salabat (an infusion of ginger) are the main drinks, while soups such as Arróz caldo (rice and chicken porridge) and papait (goat bile stew from the Ilocos region) are also found.
The rice-based foods were traditionally served to fill the stomachs of the farmers, since rice is a cheap and primary staple. The pastries were full of carbohydrates needed by the colonial Filipinos for the back-breaking work in the rice paddies and sugar mills that they were subjected to.