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Deepening Advent, Widening the Circle:
Celebrating Las Posadas and Simbang Gabi
Ricky Manalo  

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 ordinary Catholics."1 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 Sunday.2 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 parishioners.

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 Simbang Gabi.

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, and welcome."4 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.

A Basic Structure of Las Posadas
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 resources,7 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.

Place, Day(s) and Time

  • 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

Gathering Prayer Service

  • Opening Song9
  • Sign of the Cross
  • Greeting
  • Scriptural reading (from the Mass of the Day or from Evening Prayer)
  • Prayer/petition
  • Procession

Order of Procession

  • 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 donkey);
  • Or two to four carriers of statues/figures of Mary and Joseph (i.e., depiction of Joseph leading a donkey on which Mary is seated);
  • Scriptural reading (from the Mass of the Day or from Evening Prayer)
  • Children and adults carrying lighted candles follow Mary and Joseph. (These traditional candles in paper lanterns are called faroles.)

Optional Ritual Activities during Procession

  • 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 and/or English.
  • 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 and timeframe.

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 "Las Posadas."10

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.

Prayer and Placement of Mary and Joseph on Altar
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 the community.

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 festive atmosphere.

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.

Basic Components of 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.

Theological and Liturgical Themes
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.

Days and Time
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 Mass.

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 with sunrise.

Cathedral Eucharist and Blessing
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 Singing of the Gloria and the Creed
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 (see above).17

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 sensitivity,20 these popular religious practices could enrich the spiritual lives of all worshipping communities.


  1. 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.
  2. 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 Ann Zimmerman.
  3. The Directory, 101; also,
  4. Sr. Trinidad Quintero, trans. Donald Roberts (San Antonio: The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, 1975).
  5. Diego Martinez, "Las Posadas: Processing with los Peregrinatos Santos," Pastoral Music (April–May 2004): 24.
  6. 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).
  7. 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).
  8. From an interview, May 16, 2012.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Martinez, 25.
  12. 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.
  13. Here the Filipino term Simbang (Mass/Masses) could be translated in the singular or the plural depending on the context.
  14. 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.
  15. In the Philippines, many presiders use the Collect from the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary (II. In Advent).
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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").
  19. 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.
  20. 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).
Ricky Manalo, CSP,
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.
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