12/14/2005, 00.00
PHILIPPINES
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Dawn masses set to start for Christmas

by Santosh Digal

Born to allow farmers to attend the Advent Liturgy, they are a time of unity and sharing for the population.

Manila (AsiaNews) – "Dawn masses" – traditional liturgies which prepare the faithful during Advent and accompany them until the Epiphany – are set to start in the Philippines with the pre-Christmas novena. This year, the novena masses, celebrated between 16 and 24 December in the lead-up to Christmas, will have Catholics in the Philippines awake at 2am: the celebration starts at 4 but to get a seat, people must be there at least an hour earlier.

The "dawn mass" is celebrated in Mexico and Spain too and it is one of the most meaningful traditions in the Philippines, a country with one of the largest Catholic populations in the world. Fr Patric Guru said: "These masses are a preparation for the Christmas celebration. Every Filipino looks forward eagerly to them."

 The churches and other places where the novena masses are set to take place are assigned to celebrants already at the end of November. The masses will be held in churches, chapels, convents, and mission stations. "Filipino Catholics generously sponsor these masses as to express their gratitude to God," says a Catholic Mary Lim, a lay Catholic.

In some cases, dawn masses are brought forward to the afternoons between 15 and 23 December so people who work can also attend. As soon as the masses are over, people rush home for traditional breakfast consisting of favourite local dishes like rice cakes, washed down by ginger tea and hot chocolate.

The masses of the Christmas novena culminate in the Christmas vigil with midnight mass, known as the "misa de gallo" (cock mass); once the mass is over, families hold a dinner called "noche buena".  At this nocturnal celebration, family members exchange gifts and honour elderly people.

The tradition dates back to the 16th century, when Pope Sixtus V decreed that pre-dawn masses be held also in the Philippines starting every 16 December. The masses were intended to give farmers a chance to hear mass before setting out for the fields: farmers used to start working two hours before sunrise.

The Philippines has the highest percentage of Catholics in Asia: out of 89 million inhabitants, 82.9% are Catholics, 5.4% are Protestants and 4.8% are Muslims.

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