Tomorrow, on December 16th, Filipino Catholics, not only in the Philippines but in many parts of the world as well, will start the novena in preparation for Christmas Day. As the term itself “novena” suggests, it is a nine-day celebration ending with Christmas Eve – hence, running from Dec. 16 up to Dec. 24. In most places, people attend a dawn Mass, which usually starts at 4:00 AM. This is traditionally called as “Misa de Gallo” (“Rooster’s Mass”). In some places, however, it is done in the evening and is thus called as “Simbang Gabi” (Evening or Night Mass).
Misa de Gallo traces its roots to Mexico when, in 1587, the pope granted the petition of Fray Diego de Soria, prior of the convent of San Agustin Acolman, to hold Christmas Mass outdoors because the church could not accommodate the huge number of people attending the evening Mass.
Originally, it popularly came to be known as “Misa Aguinaldo”. De Aguinaldo means gift, which is peculiar to Christmas. That is why the faithful wake up early for nine days before Christmas to join in the celebration of the dawn Mass. The faithful make this their “Aguinaldo” to God for the great gift of Jesus. The practice can also be understood as the preparation of the faithful to receive from God the great gift or “Aguinaldo” of Christmas, which is Jesus, the savior of the world.
Why Misa de Gallo? Usually the rooster crows at the break of dawn. During the old times, farmers as well as fishermen used the roosters as their alarm clock. So upon the first crow of the rooster they wake up early to drop by the church before going to their work and ask for the grace of good harvest. Originally the Mass was celebrated for them. These nine dawn Masses are also considered as a novena to the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Catholic faithful. This refers to the Roman Catholic practice of performing nine days of private or public devotion to obtain special graces. In traditional Catholic belief, completing the novena is also supposed to mean that God might grant the devotee’s special wish or favor. When Pope Sixtus V decreed through a papal bull that these dawn masses be held annually in the Philippines, Misa de Gallo has become one of the most popular traditions in the country. Filipino Catholics would always bring this ingrained devotion and cultural faith-expression as one defining mark of their Catholic identity wherever they go, even if their sociological conditions and lifestyles have changed. It is a significant moment not only because it strengthens relationships among family members and parishioners but also because it is the time where our faith is intensified. This is the time where we mostly feel the presence of the Lord because it is the spiritual preparation for Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ. It does not matter if one has the stamina to complete the novena or not, what really matters is what is inside the heart. The blessing does not depend on the number of Masses attended, but what is important is the disposition of the person who receives the Lord’s blessing.
In the Philippines, the streets are lighted up with lanterns (the parol), signifying the star that led the wise men to Jesus: Jesus is the only true Light of salvation for all of creation. In the villages, streets, homes and chapels are decorated with fresh fruits, like bananas, and passersby may just freely pick them for food: all of creation participate in the abundant generosity and joyful hospitality of God. The people are roused from sleep by the tolling of the church bells at 2:00 am, and a band may roam around the village streets to proclaim a new day of joy: the Kingdom of God is at hand, and Mary, the Dawn of Salvation, has ushered it in. Churches and chapels overflow with people, as whole families attend the Misa de Gallo: a new community is gathered around the Eucharist, an eschatological family-community centered on Jesus, Savior and Lord. The festive mood goes back to the homes after the mass, as people partake of their breakfast delicacies with families, neighbors and friends until sunrise of the new day: for liturgy is a celebration of life, and a new way of living celebrated in festive meal points to the glorious meal in heaven.