Tomorrow is the official start of the uniquely Filipino liturgical tradition we call Simbang Gabi: a novena of nine consecutive dawn Masses in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary celebrated for the "perseverance of the nation in the faith and the preservation of Christianity in this part of the world". This venerable custom originates from the tradition of celebrating the Rorate Masses in honor of Our Lady during Advent. It is otherwise known as Misas de Gallo or Rooster Masses, an appropriate Advent symbol for our patient waiting for the dawning of Christ and heralding it as it breaks forth in glory. They are also called Aguinaldo Masses, the sacrifice and perseverance of attending all of which, is traditionally offered to the Christ-child as a gift on Christmas Day.
1. Being Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary, (and not because it is already Christmas; it is not yet, at least liturgically speaking) white vestments are used, even during the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent.
2. The Gloria is sung in all of these Masses. Some comments on this later.
3. The formularies (prayers and readings) are taken from the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary during Advent found in the Roman Missal or from those in the Collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (For those who have no copy yet, the latter has been made locally accessible through a reprint done by Assisi Foundation. Copies are available at most Catholic bookstores and at the Assisi office in Ortigas. Otherwise, imported copies can be very expensive.) Paul VI Institute of Liturgy (PIL) has also included a set of formularies for the Aguinaldo Masses in its Supplement to the Roman Sacramentary for the Dioceses of the Philippines.
4. If it is a Sunday, the readings and prayers of that Sunday is used. However, white vestments are still used and the Gloria is still sung. The Credo is also said on Sundays.
5. In all the rest of the Masses celebrated during the day that fall within the Simbang Gabi period, violet vestments are used, the Gloria is suppressed, and the readings and prayers are taken from the Proper of the Seasons.
6. The church is festively decorated, especially with lights that also characterized the Rorate Masses. It is also customary to prepare the crib already, with the figures of Our Lady and Saint Joseph already in place, but without the Christ-child. Similarly, it is also already appropriate to decorate homes and to set up lighted lanterns (parol) to light the path of those walking (especially in the provinces) on their way to the church.
7. Festive musical instruments may also be used. However, as to the choice of song, Advent hymns are to be preferred over Christmas hymns. (I particularly recommend the Latin chant, Rorate Caeli and Fr. Manoling Francisco's "Emmanuel "; both of which have some Marian reference.)
8. The custom of celebrating "anticipated" Misas de Aguinaldo has been widespread especially in urban centers, of late. This is to accomodate many of the people who have to rush to their places of work early in the morning. AS you may know already, these are the only real "anticipated Masses" that we have since those celebrated in the evening of Saturday are already, according to the liturgical reckoning of time, properly belonging to Sunday.
Now, some comments:
There is something about the Filipino observance of Christmas that makes it somehow inverted from a liturgical point of view. During the days (still well within the Advent season) preceding it, Christmas is already in the air. Carollers already make their rounds, the decorations are all set-up already (even as early as November!) and parties are already held. But once the season of Christmas actually sets in, the celebration somewhat dies down until the festive spirit resurges for the coming of the new year.
In many ways, the way we observe Simbang Gabi reinforces this: the decorations, the festive mood, the kind of songs we sing during Mass. We suppress the Gloria during Advent, only to wear it out during these nine consecutive days. An irrevocable custom or a possibility for reform? Already we do it as if it is already Christmas, that many even think it already is.
The Simbang Gabi, nonetheless is a very beautiful Advent(!) tradition. If only the way we celebrate it can contribute better to the liturgical catechesis of our people so that they may fittingly celebrate the Savior's birth. Not preempt it.