Tomorrow, December 16, the Philippine church begins the well-loved and enduring Filipino Christmas tradition called Simbang Gabi (Filipino for “night masses”). Simbáng Gabi is a devotional nine-day series of Masses practiced by Roman Catholics and Aglipayans in the Philippines in preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ. The Simbáng Gabi Masses in the Philippines are held daily in all parishes, shrines and major chapels throughout the country from December 16–24 and occur at different times ranging from as early as 3 to 5 AM. Yes, that early!
In recent years, especially in urban areas where people find it difficult to attend the early morning masses because of their work, parishes celebrate evening masses of the Simbáng Gabi. This begins at the 15th of December and ends on the 23rd, (erroneously described as “anticipated Simbang gabi” since Vigil or anticipated Masses are only applicable for Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation). However, the propers and readings used for these Masses are those which are prescribed for the day.
White is the liturgical color for Masses celebrated within the context of these novena masses. Violet is used for any other Masses said during the day, as these are still considered part of the Advent season. Filipinos celebrate this Mass with great solemnity and the Gloria is sung.
The Simbang Gabi is the most important Filipino Christmas tradition. Simbang gabi is deeply rooted in the history and culture of the Filipinos.
The Simbang Gabi originated in the early days of Spanish rule over the Philippines as a practical compromise for farmers, who began work before sunrise to avoid the noonday heat out in the fields. It began in 1669. Priests began to say Mass in the early mornings instead of the evening novenas more common in the rest of the Hispanic world. 
After hearing Mass, Filipino families usually partake of the traditional Philippine Christmas delicacies, either during breakfast at home or immediately outside the church, where they are sold. Vendors offer a wealth of native delicacies, including bibingka (rice flour and egg based cake, cooked using coals on top and under), puto bumbong (a purple sticky rice delicacy which is steamed in bamboo tubes, with brown sugar and coconut shavings as condiments), salabat (hot ginger tea) and tsokolate (thick Spanish cocoa).
Many Filipinos believe that if a devotee completed all nine days of the Simbáng Gabi, a request made as part of the novena may be granted. The danger of this, is again, it may lead us to focus on ourselves, which the celebration of Christmas in the secular world has all too often led us–with all the focus on material gifts, parties, and merry-making. The real focus of Simbang Gabi is supposedly, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ into our world. Thus, Simbang Gabi is, first and foremost, focused on how our lives can become gifts to Jesus Christ and for others, especially the poor and the needy. That is why in more recent years, the church has called Simbang Gabi more appropriately as Misa Aguinaldo (gift mass).
Indeed attending the Simbang Gabi is a sacrifice. We go out of our daily routine by waking up early in the morning especially in this cold season trying to complete the 9 days masses. It is a sacrifice made not just because of an obligation, nor because we have a petition nor because of a panata (promise) in exchange of a favour from God. It is a sacrifice made out of love, first and foremost, a gift to our Lord Jesus Christ who will be celebrating his birthday.
Simbang Gabi also marks the second part of Advent which focuses on the preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ. Up to the 16th December, the season of Advent is a period of preparation for the Second Coming of our Lord. On December 17th, Advent changes gear, the focus is on preparing us to celebrate Christmas.
Thus, in these last eight days before Christmas, the relationship between the readings changes. Each of these days, the first reading is taken from the Hebrew scriptures, and chosen to match the gospel. The gospels are taken from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. The gospel brings us closer to the celebration of Christmas. The sense of anticipation and fulfillment builds as we read the story of the preparation for Jesus’ first coming into this world for us.
In this light, Simbang Gabi is going back to the Christmas story, the original Christmas story. By going back to the Christmas story, we will be introduced to characters that we might be hearing only at this time of the year like Manoah, Samson, Hannah, Samuel, Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah. We will see that the lives and stories of these characters will come together in Jesus Christ. Each character will see the totality of their lives in God’s greater plan of God coming down to become one among us. They are just supporting characters to the main character which is Jesus. The stories of these characters are not separate stories, each story is part of a larger story—the Jesus story; the story of the coming down of God and becoming one of us. All these stories are slowly unfolding towards a climax—the birth of Jesus.
That is why I call Simbang Gabi a school or an academy that will teach us the real meaning and message of Christmas. The daily lesson and insight of each Simbang Gabi will teach and help us how to become gift to our Lord Jesus Christ and to one another. In this way, Simbang Gabi is truly a most meaningful way of discovering and experiencing the meaning of Christmas.
The profound meaning and calling of Simbang Gabi is reflected in this year’s theme of the Simbang Gabi at the shrine: Sambayanang Namumuhay sa Pag-asa: Minamahal, May Lakas, May Handog ( A People Living in Hope: Beloved, Strong, Gifted).
Here is the schedule of Simbang Gabi at the Baclaran Shrine (Philippine Time). All Simbang Gabi masses at the shrine, both evening and early morning, are streamed live. Click this link to watch and listen to the Simbang Gabi at the shrine.
 Roces, Alfredo (1 October 2009). Culture Shock! Philippines: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette. Marshall Cavendish Reference.