|This article does not cite any references or sources. (February 2013)|
Simbáng Gabi (lit. Night Mass) is a devotional nine-day series of Masses practised by Roman Catholics and Aglipayans in the Philippines in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary in anticipation of Christmas. Simbáng Gabi, which translates to Night Mass, is held from December 16 to December 24 and is usually done as early as 3 to 5 o' clock in the morning. On the last day of the Simbang Gabi, which is Christmas Eve, it is called Misa de Gallo, which literally translates to "Rooster's Mass".
The Simbang Gabi originated in the early days of Spanish rule as a practical compromise for farmers who started their day before sunrise to avoid the heat 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 is a symbol of sharing.
Spanish-Era Agricultural Practices
The Philippines is an agricultural country known for its rice, coconut and sugarcane plantations. Many 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 for fear of the ire of the local encargado, or administrator of the Spanish lord or encomendero/hacendero.
In between the planting and harvest seasons is a lull in the work imposed on the 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 the natives went out to toil in the fields again. The custom spread and it evolved into a distinctly Philippine tradition to attend Mass at a rather early time.
During the Spanish and early American periods the parishioners would mostly have nothing to offer at the 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. Latik and yema are sweets sold to children, while biscuits like uraro, barquillos, lengua de gato and otap are also available. Kape Barako, a very strong coffee grown in the province of Batangas), hot tsokolate, or salabat (a tisane of ginger) are the main drinks. Arróz caldo (rice and chicken porridge), soups and papait (goat bile stew found in the Ilocos region) soups abound.
The rice-based foods were traditionally served to fill the stomachs of the farmers and since rice is a cheap and primary staple. The pastries were full of carbohydrates needed for the back-breaking forced work in the rice paddies and azucareras that the natives suffered under the colonisers.