A mirthful moment: Filipino carol in Latin and English

Since we’re just a few hours from Christmas, we are now sharing two translations we made back in 2012 of perhaps the most famous Filipino Christmas carol. The text we translated into Latin and English is the original Cebuano, Kasadyà ni’ng taknaa, penned by Mariano Vestil. In 2014, Josefino Cenizal claimed to have composed the melody for this carol, but Levi Celerio himself confirms that Vicente Rubí wrote the melody. (Levi Celerio is the one who adapted the Cebuano daygon into the Tagalog Ang Paskó ay sumapit.) The two translations, set to Sor Rosalina Abejo’s arrangement, joined other Christmas carols in the 2012 Advent and Christmas hymnal we compiled.

The Latin text begins with Quam lætum hoc momentum (open the sheet music here), and the English text with How mirthful is this moment (open the sheet music here). While this carol, in both its Cebuano and Tagalog incarnations, is now sung unhampered during Masses in the usus recentior, we continue to encourage fellow choristers to sing the new translations, not even the Latin, outside the context of the Mass. There should be no problem singing these in carol services, and in reinterpretations of Christmas tableaus which traditionally are known as pastores in many places in the archipelago.

Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.

Rizal and a villancico

It is time for villancicos! A great number of Filipino villancicos (of course, in Spanish) eventually disappeared via the oft-trodden road of desuetude. What replaced them are feel-good Christmas carols, such as one that gleefully glorifies the coordinated twinkling of Christmas lights, or another that excitedly enumerates the meals prepared for the nochebuena, or another that forlornly reduces Christmas to an accident in an ongoing breakup process, or still another that poignantly ponders on missed family reunions juxtaposed against the glittering tinsel and clinking jingle of the season.


Perhaps, we can say that the collapse of the Spanish language in the Philippines was one of the catalysts that progressively favoured the deconstruction of Christmas into its purely aesthetic, amply gastronomic, potentially therapeutic, and overstatedly emotional elements. In other words, materialism articulated in poetic motifs and tuneful themes. The worrying thing about this trend is not the accident that modern Filipino Christmas carols do not mock the core and reason of Christmas, Who is Christ our Lord, but the fact that they do not mention Him at all. Whether a staunch refusal or a candid failure, this setting aside of Christ contributes to the decoupling of our values from our faith.

But enough about this tragedy in our culture. Let us get to the villancicos. Examples of Filipino villancicos are this and this, both from the Visayas. Sung with their Spanish counterparts during pastores presentations, together with the adaptation of various Latin hymns, and the misa pastorela for the misa de aguinaldo, villancicos defined the Christmas soundscape of colonial Philippines.


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An attempt to suppress the misa de aguinaldo

Adoración de los pastores
Adoración de los pastores | Anónimo (Taller de Bassano) | desp. 1575

On 16 January 1677, the Sacred Congregation of Rites issued a rescript in response to the complaints filed by the ceremoneer of Seville, Don Diego Díaz de Escobar. One of the issues Díaz de Escobar reported was the custom of celebrating the misas de aguinaldo with Gloria and Credo and with only one collect, wherein layfolk joined the choir in singing carols that provoked laughter. The Congregation called this, and all other practices quoted, an abuse “repugnant to the rubrics and to the opinions of those to whom these were related,” and “ought to be destroyed altogether.”


Felipe Pardo
Sr. D. Fr. Felipe Fernández de Pardo, O. P. | Anónimo | s.f.

So, when the rescript arrived in the Philippines, the archbishop-elect of Manila, Fray Felipe Fernández de Pardo, wasted no time in stopping the abuse. Fray Felipe had been prior of the Dominican convent in Manila once, and provincial of the entire Order in the Philippines twice. Three years into the vacancy of the see of Manila following the death of the Dominican Fray Juan López, the King of Spain named Fray Felipe archbishop. On 4 August 1677, he received the royal decree naming him archbishop of Manila. The cathedral chapter, seeing that the friar was doubtful about his own capacity to discharge the office owing to his advanced age, required that he accept the promotion. This he did on 11 November, after having ascertained that the traditional terna was not proposed—the King nominated only him.


Pope Innocent XI confirmed the appointment of Fray Felipe as archbishop of Manila on 8 January 1680. While the bull of confirmation was still in transit to the Islands, Fray Felipe finally decided to issue the decree banning not only the practice of singing carols during the misa de aguinaldo, but the misa de aguinaldo itself. To prevent any pretence at celebrating the misa de aguinaldo, he forbad not only Sung Masses, but also Low Masses. Carols, even those whose subject is the divine, he prohibited. Below is the text of the decree with our translation.

Decree of prohibition ESDecree of prohibition EN

The prohibition is threefold: music, instrument, and carol. The third is what interests us. We will not discuss here the merit of lumping with the ban even those musical pieces that are about the divine. The original Spanish uses the word chanzoneta, which, according to the DRAE, descended from the French chansonnette, and signifies a “four-line verse or composition in light and festive verse, formerly generally created in order to be sung in Christmastide or in other religious festivities”.

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