Manila (AsiaNews) Filipinos have many Christmas traditions. One that brings happy memories stands out among them, that of Simbang Gabi or Aguinaldo mass, the tradition of pre-dawn nine-day novena mass, one that is widely followed throughout the country.
At the stroke of 4 in the morning, church bells toll, residents awake, reminded that mass is to begin in just thirty minutes. In spite of the hour, many are those who come because mass is a festive occasion to prepare for Christmas.
A joyful atmosphere reigns, the sound of Christmas carols in the air and the aroma of rice cakes and hot ginger tea sold in front of the church.
"It is a fascinating atmosphere," Fr Corrado De Corrado, a Combonian missioner and editor of World Mission, told AsiaNews. "People come: some half asleep, others sleeping; some unwashed, some washed; others yawning all throughout the mass. Despite having to get up early, they come because they want to give a gift to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is the patroness of the country," he said.
According to Peachy Yamsuan, of the Archdiocese of Manila media office, "this practice of dawn masses can be traced back to the Rorate masses."
"[They were celebrated at dawn to signify that light will overcome darkness. Christ who is the light of the world will overcome the darkness of death and sin.
"This light of the world was introduced by Mary; thus Mary is called 'the dawn' that brought forth and announced the coming of 'the Light'."
Early masses are also held to accommodate the farmers before they go to their fields.
At the Columban-run Our Lady of Remedies in Malate, Manila, because of the huge number of attendants during these masses, priests have set up a huge video screen for those who cannot be accommodated inside the church.
Outside, street vendors sell freshly baked rice cakes. After the mass, crowds flock around their stalls to take at least one cake home.
"Going to early mass," Peachy Yamsuan says, "is a sign of penitence that shows that the faithful are ready to welcome the Lord at any time".