Countless preachers have preached (and by now, many of us
have heard) homilies about the competing Advent-Christmas
seasons: the "Civic Christmas Season," which begins with the
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and ends on the day after
Christmas, and the "Official Advent-Christmas Cycle," which
begins on the First Sunday of Advent, peaks at the Midnight
Mass of Christmas, and ends on the Baptism of the Lord. Within
these temporal frameworks are perichoretic dances between consumer
needs and social practices, on the one hand, and the official
liturgies of the Church, on the other. There are those
"vigils"—not to be confused with the anticipated Masses on
Saturday evenings often called vigils—that involve "standing
alert" and shivering in the cold night air outside of stores, as we
anticipate the opening of the doors the next morning and cry
out "Come, O Savings, Come!" There are those frantic searches,
not for an "inn" to prepare ourselves spiritually for celebrating
the birth of our Savior, but for the savings we may discover in the
wilderness of shopping aisles. And there are the eager and hopeful
anticipations, not for the Second Coming of Christ but for
the rewards that we will reap the day after Christmas, when the
rituals of exchanges and returns ensue.
The story of how Christians celebrate the Advent-Christmas Cycle is a curious study of sociocultural practices
intermingling with religious practices. So often, the ebb and flow
of one cultural practice influences other practices. For example,
the Advent wreath, with its Germanic pagan origins, today has
become an artistic and liturgical fixture in many worshipping
communities. What began as a particular ethnic cultural symbol
from outside official liturgical boundaries eventually moved
into and within official worship environments. In this article, I
would like to propose two other cultural religious practices that,
while specific to ethnic cultural groups, may have the potential
of crossing cultural boundaries and becoming resources for
deepening the meaning of the official seasonal timeframe and
spirit of Advent and Christmas, while offering opportunities to
counter the frantic experiences of the civic Christmas season.
These two cultural practices are the Las Posadas novena that
stem from the Mexican tradition, and the Simbang Gabi novena
Masses that stem from the Filipino tradition.
In December 2001, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the
Discipline of the Sacraments published the Directory on Popular
Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines. One of the goals
of the Directory was to address the place and value of popular
religious practices while still holding firm to the primacy of the
liturgy as "the summit toward which the activity of the Church
is directed . . . and the fount from which all her power flows"
(Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 10). As Peter C. Phan
observed, "pia exercitia, the so-called popular devotions, did not
get, both at the council and during its aftermaths, the attention
proportionate to the important role they played in the life of
During the years that followed the Second
Vatican Council, many pastoral leaders did not place much attention
on the devotional life of their parishioners, instead, focusing
attention on the implementation of the revised rites. Perhaps
some were fearful that continued promotion of devotional practices
would somehow lead people away from the primacy of
Sunday Eucharist. Yet, popular devotions continued in the daily
lives of Catholics, partly because such practices spoke to the
heart and filled a spiritual and emotional niche that the liturgical
reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the official liturgies
were unable to address. Since the publication of the
Directory, noted liturgical theologians have expressed renewed
interests in articulating more clearly the relationship between liturgy
and popular devotions: that is, worshipping communities
may still develop, foster, and nourish meaningful practices of
popular devotions while maintaining the full, conscious, and
active participation of the liturgy and the central place of
I am not advocating a return to the days when parishioners
prayed the Rosary during Mass, but I am suggesting that
worshipping communities develop and foster a healthy respect
for popular religious practices in the daily lives of their
It goes without saying that among the many forms of popular
religious practices, devotions to Mary remain the most
popular. While we may hold up the month of May as a Marian
month, Advent is filled with Marian feasts as well, including the
Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (December 8) and the
Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12). The Directory
cautions that December is not to become a Marian month but is
to remain focused on the larger Christological themes of salvation.3
While the celebrations of Las Posadas and Simbang Gabi
have Marian themes attached to them, nevertheless, they remain
within the larger temporal framework of the second half of
Advent. Thus, these devotional practices should be experienced
as spiritual preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ
and within the larger celebration of the Paschal Mystery. In the
following two sections, I present a primer on Las Posadas and
Las Posadas (plural for posada, "inn") is a nine-day novena that
lasts from December 16 to 24. Each night participants re-enact
the journey of Mary and Joseph, who searched for lodging in
order to give birth to the child Jesus. In Las Posadas, the deeper
theological themes that mark the second part of Advent—hopeful
expectation, the imminent coming of the birth of
Christ, the Incarnation—are expressed through the ritual forms
of singing, procession, dialogue, and eating. Sister Trinidad
Quintero suggests that the term "Las Posadas," in addition to
meaning "the inns," has deeper meanings of "shelter, protection,
The procession also may have particular pilgrimage
overtones, as Diego Martinez suggests: "Though there have
been times when we, like the Holy Family, have been outcasts
and wanderers, God in Christ has always been with us, and the
Blessed Mother has always watched over us."5
Historical roots of this novena may be traced back to the
sixteenth century, when Saint Ignatius of Loyola suggested that
prayers be said during this time period as a way to prepare for
Christmas Time. In 1580, Saint John of the Cross contributed to
the development of this novena by suggesting more pageantry
(i.e., the practice of procession) as a way to accompany the
prayers. In 1587, Fray Diego de Soria (an Augustinian monk
from the convent of San Agustin in Acolman, Mexico) introduced
this practice to the indigenous people of Mexico as a
means for evangelization.6
Since then the novena spread from
Mexico to the southwest United States, and eventually
to the rest of the country.
Celebrations of Las Posadas vary from one location to
another, depending on the tradition and the cultural
needs of the local community. Based on three
I have mapped out a basic pattern of celebration
for each of the nine days, which may include
the following components: a gathering, a procession
that includes a prayer service at the inn (station or
home), a ritual placement of the statues of Mary and
Joseph upon an altar at the inn (if these are used), and
the sharing and eating of food. The following outline
provides more specific details that could serve as a
starting point for further adaptations.
- Las Posadas is celebrated from December 16 to 24. Some communities
celebrate during each of the nine days, while others
celebrate for only one evening.
- The time of celebration is in the evening after nightfall.
Pedro Rubalcava has shared with me two forms that he has witnessed
with regard to the relationship between the place of Las
Posadas and sponsorship: (1) A family or parish organization/
apostolic lay group will sponsor each of the days, with all of the
events occurring on the parish grounds; (2) a family or families
will sponsor each day of the Posada at the home of the family,
with the last day celebrated at the parish.8
- Opening Song9
- Sign of the Cross
- Scriptural reading (from the Mass of the Day or from
- The head of the procession may be an acolyte carrying a cross
or an angel (usually a child) or both;
- Two members of the community representing and dressed up
as Mary and Joseph (some communities have even used a
- Or two to four carriers of statues/figures of Mary and Joseph
(i.e., depiction of Joseph leading a donkey on which Mary is
- Scriptural reading (from the Mass of the Day or from
- Children and adults carrying lighted candles follow Mary and
Joseph. (These traditional candles in paper lanterns are called
- Singing of songs and hymns (musicians at various locations
could aid in the singing);
- Praying of Rosary or Hail Marys.
- Recitation of other litanic prayer forms in Spanish
- Prayer service at the inn.
Number of Inns (Stations or Homes): The number of stational
visitations depends on the number of days (see above) and
the length of time of the service. For example, those who celebrate
this novena for all nine days may visit one inn per evening,
while those who celebrate this novena for just one evening may
opt for any number of stational inns, depending on resources
Dialogue: Upon reaching the inn, a sung dialogue takes
place between the processional group outside (representing
Mary and Joseph) and the people inside (representing the innkeepers).
Martinez suggests the singing of the traditional song
Assuming the role of Joseph, the people beg: "In the name
of heaven / give us hospitality. / My beloved wife / can walk no
farther." The people inside respond: "This is no inn; / keep going. /
I will not open to you / in case you are a bum."
Depending on the number of inns visited, the last dialogue
(i.e., verse of the song) is one of welcome. The people inside
respond: "Are you Joseph? / Is your wife Mary? / Enter, pilgrims, /
we didn’t know it was you."
This last verse represents permission to enter. One variation
is the holding off of this permission by the innkeepers until
the very last day of the novena.
With the granting of permission by the innkeepers, all enter and
kneel in prayer. Those carrying the figures of Mary and Joseph
(if these are used) place the figures on a home altar. A popular
prayer choice is the Litany to the Blessed Virgin (the Litany of
Loreto). Of course, other prayers may be included within this
portion of the novena depending on the Marian tradition of
A festivity of food and hospitality ends the evening. Traditional
foods may include: buñuelos (fried and sugar-coated pastries),
tamales, and ponche (fruit punch).11
The breaking of piñatas and
seasonal singing of religious and liturgical songs may add to the
Simbang Gabi (Filipino for "Night Masses") is traditionally a
pre-dawn novena of Masses that lasts nine days, from December
16 to 24.12
In Spain around the time of the Tenth Council of
Toledo in 656, there was an ancient tradition of celebrating
the Feast of the Expectation of the Blessed Virgin Mary on
December 18. The accompanying of the expectant mother of
Jesus became a prominent theme that spread throughout the
Iberian Peninsula and Italy during the Middle Ages. Eventually,
these countries extended this feast to a sequence of nine novena
Masses before Christmas. We know this by the numerous
decrees that granted special privileges during the celebration of
these Masses, the most significant privileges being the singing of
the Gloria and the Creed. In Spanish-speaking countries, these
Masses were called Misa de Aguinaldo ("Gift Mass"). Aguinaldo referred to the gift-giving practices that occurred throughout
Christmas Time until the Feast of Epiphany. In time, the novena
combined the many themes of "gifts" (i.e., God’s gift to the world
in the person of Jesus and the gifts that Christians, in turn, present
to God) together with the notion of accompanying Mary
throughout her pregnancy.
In Mexico, another important feature of these Masses was
the time they were celebrated: in the early morning right before
sunrise to accommodate the needs of farmers and agricultural
laborers who needed to begin their work in the fields before the
heat of the day set in. In 1587, Pope Sixtus V granted permission
for Diego de Soria (the same monk who helped introduce Las
Posados) to celebrate these Masses outdoors. A century later,
Spanish and Mexican missionaries brought this novena to the
Philippines as an instrument for evangelization and attached a
Filipino name to it, Simbang Gabi ("Night Masses"13) since the
time of celebration was traditionally held at night before sunrise.
For this reason, another title that became attached to these celebrations
was Misa de Gallo ("Mass of the rooster"). Today, these
titles often become interchangeable,14
but in the United States,
Filipino communities primarily use Simbang Gabi.
On November 15, 2010, the Archdiocese of Manila issued official
guidelines on the celebration of Simbang Gabi. The following
section will present some basic liturgical components of Simbang
Gabi based on those guidelines, as well as my experiences of how
this novena has been adapted in some parishes and dioceses of
the Untied States.
Remember that Simbang Gabi occurs within the second half of
Advent. Thus, as in Las Posadas, the theological thrust should
point to the larger context of the Paschal Mystery, the
Incarnation, and the anticipated celebration of the birth of
Christ on December 25. The Mass formularies and readings are
taken from the weekdays of Advent.15
When Simbang Gabi is celebrated
in the evening of Saturday and on Sunday, the liturgy of
the Sunday of Advent takes precedence.
In the Philippines, Simbang Gabi is celebrated daily from
December 16 to 24. The culmination of this celebration is the
Christmas Midnight Mass. In the United States, parishes that
collaborate with other local parishes usually shift the timeframe
to one day earlier, from December 15 to 23, so each parish community
can have its own celebration of the Christmas Midnight
In the Philippines the traditional starting time is 4 AM, but
some places (like Our Lady of Montserrat in Manila) celebrate
this during evening hours.16
Evening hours are more compatible
with modern work schedules, particularly in urban settings. In
the United States, the starting time of these celebrations also
vary. In my experience, the majority of celebrations are usually
held in the evening, but as Simbang Gabi becomes more popular,
I am noticing an increased number of communities celebrating
this novena in the morning hours (e.g., 5 or 6 AM). If you choose
to celebrate in the morning, it is ideal to start
before sunrise and have the end of Mass coincide
Because the majority of the population in the
Philippines is Roman Catholic, each local parish
has a wealth of resources and traditions that help
sustain its annual celebrations of Simbang Gabi.
While individual US parishes with a large number
of Filipino members are able to sustain these
annual celebrations, more diocesan-wide coordination
efforts and celebrations are occurring.
For example, in the Archdioceses of Seattle, San
Francisco, Chicago, and New York (and other
dioceses that I may not be aware of), the cathedrals
usually celebrate an annual Simbang Gabi "Blessing" within the context of a Eucharistic
Liturgy with a presiding bishop or archbishop.
This often occurs sometime before December 15, when local parish
communities that will celebrate Simbang Gabi gather
together. The opening procession may include representatives
from each parish holding up a parol (a traditional Filipino paper
lantern in the shape of a star) on a stick. These are displayed
throughout the church during the Mass. After the homily, the
bishop gives a blessing to the representatives. At the end of Mass,
the representatives pick up their parols and join in the recession.
The Church in the Philippines had been granted a special indult
to celebrate Simbang Gabi with white vestments and with the
singing of the Gloria, the Creed, and Christmas carols (i.e., only
Simbang Gabi Masses, as distinct from all other weekday Masses
that are celebrated at other times of the day). These elements are
not common in the United States during Simbang Gabi Masses,
but there are some exceptions. For example, at St. James
Cathedral, of the Archdiocese of Seattle, the clergy wear white
vestments and the assembly sings the Gloria during their onetime
Eucharistic celebration that includes the blessing of representatives
As in Las Posadas, a social gathering with refreshments takes
place after each Mass. Some of the more traditional foods
include bibinka (rice cakes), puto bungbong (steamed purple
sticky rice with grated coconut on top), and suman sa ibos and
suman sa pasko (glutinous rice wrapped in coconut or banana
leaves). After the last Simbang Gabi Mass, this gathering is even
more festive and includes foods such as lechon (roasted pig),
pancit (noodles), adobo chicken and pork, lumpia (meat eggrolls),
and much singing and dancing.18
The purpose of this article was to provide a basic introduction
to Las Posadas and Simbang Gabi. Because these celebrations
take place during the second half of Advent, they, along with
official liturgical celebrations such as Sunday Eucharist, provide
opportunities for the faithful to remember and prayerfully foster
the deeper meaning of the season. This may be one of the primary
reasons why many US dioceses and parishes have noticed
an increased number of participants in both of these popular
religious practices over the past twenty to thirty years.19
In fact, in many parishes throughout the country, the worshippers who
participate in these are no longer limited to Hispanic and
Filipino Catholics; indeed the circle continues to widen and
include people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
With solid intercultural planning, preparation, and pastoral
these popular religious practices could enrich the
spiritual lives of all worshipping communities.
- Peter C. Phan, "Preface," in Directory on Popular Piety and the
Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines, A Commentary, ed. Peter C. Phan
(Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2002): 1.
- The essays in the aforementioned resource edited by Phan include
contributions by James Empereur, Peter E. Fink, Mark R. Francis,
Nathan D. Mitchell, Keith F. Pecklers, Anna Maria Pineda, and Joyce
- The Directory, 101; also,
- Sr. Trinidad Quintero, trans. Donald Roberts (San Antonio: The
Confraternity of Christian Doctrine of the Archdiocese of San Antonio,
- Diego Martinez, "Las Posadas: Processing with los Peregrinatos
Santos," Pastoral Music (April–May 2004): 24.
- Martinez notes: "Originally intended to be a solemn commemoration
of the journey to Bethlehem, using liturgical chants and prayers,
and a visual catechetical tool for instructing indigenous people about
Christianity, it quickly took on a festive atmosphere and moved beyond
the walls of the church" (24).
- In addition to the two resources by Quintero and Martinez cited
above, see Pedro Rubalcava, "Las Posadas: A Home and Parish Advent
Celebration," Today’s Liturgy (Advent–Christmas–Epiphany 2008):
34–36. For an expanded treatment on this subject, see Miguel Arias,
Mark R. Francis, and Arturo Pérez–Rodríguez, La Navidad Hispana: At
Home and At Church (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2007).
- From an interview, May 16, 2012.
- Rubalcava recommends "Preparen el Camino del Señor" by Fernando
Rodríguez or "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" in English or Spanish.
Other options may include Magnificat settings or hymns that were/will
be sung during Eucharistic Liturgies of the Fourth Sunday of Advent.
- Martinez, 25. This traditional song is also known by its first line: "En
nombre del cielo os pido posada." "These [traditional songs] tend to have
four verses to be sung by those who represent the innkeepers and the
four verses for those who accompany Mary and Joseph." Rubalvaca, 36.
- Martinez, 25.
- The origin of Simbang Gabi remains complex, partially due to the
relatively small number of available resources. For a more detailed historical
development, see Herman J. Graf, "The Aguinaldo Masses and
Their Message," The East Asian Pastoral Review 18:4 (1981): 375–88.
Also, Fidel Villarroel notes the uncertainty of when the first Misa de
Aguinaldo was celebrated in the Philippines. The first account is found
in Francisco Ignacio Alcina’s Historia de las Islas e Indias de Besayas of
1668. See his, "The Aguinaldo Masses: Origins, Setbacks, and Survival,"
Philippiniana Sacra 34:102 (September–December, 1999): 487– 509.
These authors provide more details on the development of the Missa
aurea ("golden Mass") and the "Rorate Mass" which gets its name from
the opening antiphon: Rorate, caeli, desuper, et nubes pluant iustum ("Drop down dew, O heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain
down righteousness."). In time, these Masses interconnected with votive
Masses to Mary in the historical development of the Advent season.
Given the space of this article, I begin in Spain, since it was from the
Spanish missionaries that the Philippines received the Christian faith.
- Here the Filipino term Simbang (Mass/Masses) could be translated
in the singular or the plural depending on the context.
- For example, in the Philippines all three terms, Misa de Gallo,
Simbang Gabi, and Misa de Aguinaldo, are quite popular, while
for some, the Misa de Aguinaldo is reserved for the final Mass, the
Midnight Mass on December 24.
- In the Philippines, many presiders use the Collect from the
Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary (II. In Advent).
- Evening celebrations of Simbang Gabi in the Philippines began
during the years when the government regime of Ferdinand Marcos
declared martial law (1972 –1981) and imposed curfews, thus eliminating
the possibility of celebrating this novena from 4 to 5 AM.
- For other music, consider the following: "Halina, Hesus" by Eduardo
P. Hontivero and Rene B. Javellana (a traditional Advent song); "Ang
Pasko Ay Sumapit" by Vincente Rubi (for the last night); "Ang Katawan
Ni Kristo" (a bilingual Communion song in English and Filipino) and
"Come, O Spirit of God" (an ostinato invocation to the Holy Spirit in
five languages), both by Ricky Manalo. Ultimately, the best resources for
anything are from the Filipino people themselves.
- Since the parishes in the Philippines usually celebrate the last
Simbang Gabi on Christmas Eve, the name of this fiesta is Noche Buena ("Good night").
- For example, in the Archdiocese of Chicago’s celebration of Simbang
Gabi, there is a coordination of more than 120 parishes. During each
night five to fourteen worshipping communities celebrate this novena,
with Cardinal Francis George, OMI, presiding over the last night.
- For further guidelines regarding planning and preparation, I
recommend Mark R. Francis (with contributions by Rufino Zaragoza),
Liturgy in a Culturally Diverse Community: A Guide (Washington, DC:
Federation of Diocesans Liturgical Commissions, 2011).
an adviser to the US Bishops’s Secretariat
on Cultural Diversity in the Church. The doctoral candidate at
The Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, Caliornia, serves as an
adjunct professor at Santa Clara University.