This weekend, the Philippine Church will once again begin the misas de aguinaldo. This term, unfortunately, is rather antiquated, and is only used nowadays in ordines. Its successors are misa de gallo, which denotes the series of nine Masses celebrated at dawn from 16 to 24 December, and simbáng gabí, which denotes those celebrated in the evening from 15 to 23 December.
As we have said elsewhere, misa de aguinaldo has two elements: misa and aguinaldo. The first element, misa, is fairly easy. It refers to the devotional Masses once celebrated in Spain in honour of the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The second element, on the other hand, aguinaldo, is rather tricky. It encodes two meanings: first, aguinaldo means carol, which refers to the popular hymns sung by the faithful within the context of the misas de aguinaldo; second, aguinaldo means gift, which refers to the acts of charity performed after such Masses.
Ditties and strains, the carol-part of aguinaldo, which the people sung during the Masses eventually grew more and more vulgar and caricaturesque (just listen to Rin, rin) to such a point that the master of ceremonies of Seville, D. Diego Díaz de Escobar, reported these abuses to the Sacred Congregation of Rites, which in turn responded, recommending their full extermination. Under this pretext, D. Felipe Pardo, then-archbishop of Manila, visited a short-lived suppression upon the misas de aguinaldo in the archdiocese. Acts of charity, on the other hand, the gift-part of aguinaldo, which pious men and women exercised after Masses of this wise, took varied forms. Saint Simón de Roxas fed seventy-two poor people in honour of the seventy-two years that the Blessed Virgin Mary ever Virgin lived on earth before her most glorious Assumption. The cathedral chapter of Toledo distributed gifts of money, poultry and fish (dinero, gallinas, and besugo) to the different people—the subchoirmasters, the beadles, chandlers, the sweepers, the embroiders, the upholsterers of the sanctuary, etc.—who rendered service to the chapter and to the cathedral.
We have said before that the misas de aguinaldo operate on a parallel calendar that is not concerned about what happens in the universal liturgical calendar for nine days before Christmas. The universal calendar, reciprocally, is not concerned about it. How the Masses came to be celebrated at dawn, we may never fully discover, but from the acts of the cathedral chapter of Toledo, we discover that in the 16th century, the aguinaldos were distributed on Christmas Day after the Dawn Mass of Christmas, which is sung after prime, which is the name of the canonical hour of the Divine Office that is normally prayed at 6 o’clock in the morning. However, in order for the second Mass of Christmas to be said at dawn, prime is said earlier than the usual time. This giving of aguinaldos after the Dawn Mass of Christmas is a most fitting culmination of the nine-day misas de aguinaldo that preceded it.
So, while the misa de aguinaldo is not concerned with what happens in the general calendar, it is, however, concerned with what happens in the horological cycle of the day. This immemorial custom teaches us to sanctify the hours when the world is awash in the darkness that precedes the nine days before Christmas. These hours, we know, can be referenced against the canonical hours: the misa de aguinaldo is celebrated between the hour of lauds and the hour of prime. Normally, this should be between 3 o’clock and 6 o’clock in the morning. In the past, however, the celebrations were sometimes pre-posed to as early as 2 o’clock after midnight. While we can deduce only part of the rationale, we understand that this is acceptable, primarily because, in practice, matins and lauds are anticipated as early as 2 o’clock in the afternoon of the previous day.
If we consider this anticipation of matins and lauds, we discover that the dark hours between lauds and prime practically expands from three (3 to 6 AM) to twelve (6 PM to 6 AM). Now, simbáng gabí comes to mind!
Throughout history, the misas de aguinaldo were celebrated in the darkness before dawn, at the time between lauds and terce (or prime, if we fine-tune) in order for Christ’s faithful to look forward towards the morning of the nine days before Christmas. We look forward to the sunrise of the nine days before Christmas, because these are sunrises that foreshadow the great and magnificent birth of the Sun of Justice on Christmas Day.
The Sistine indult that granted indulgences to the misa de aguinaldo only states that the Masses are celebrated nine days before Christmas. The fact that it simply mentions the number of days (and not the dates themselves) enables these possible adjustments, so long as they are morally within the duration of darkness between the hour of lauds and the hour of prime.
It is these two reasons that allow us to appreciate as well the wisdom behind the misas de aguinaldo celebrated in the evening from 15 to 23 December. While they may not fully fit in the schema of the usus recentior which follows a different reckoning for its Divine Office, they perfectly fit in the reckoning of the usus antiquior, where the duration between lauds and prime is practically extended by the anticipation of the nocturnal hours at 2 o’clock in the afternoon of the previous day.
So, Filipino brethren in the True Faith, as we celebrate the nine-day misas de aguinaldo, let us remember that we attend Mass every dawn from 16 to 24 December, or in the evening from 15 to 23 December, we sanctify the dark hours that precede the sunrise of the nine days before Christmas, to honour the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. To this act of hyperdulia, we unite as well the noble intentions for the exaltation of Holy Mother Church, for the propagation of the Catholic faith, and for the constancy of those newly converted to the faith in the aforesaid faith, as well as for the constancy of the Filipinos in the faith, and for the preservation of religion in the archipelago.
Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.
Sacred Congregation of Rites, Decree 2659 (16 January 1677).
Ángel Fernández Collado, La catedral de Toledo en el siglo XVI (Toledo: 1999) cap. 5.
Sixtus Pp. V, Brief Licet is (5 August 1586).
Felipe Pardo, O. P., Decree on the suppression of the misa de aguinaldo (12 October 1680).