simbang gabi - the history (thanks to Wkipedia)
Simbang Gabi is a devotional nine-day series of Masses practised by Roman Catholics and Aglipayans in the Philippines in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary in anticipation of Christmas. Simbang Gabi, which translates to Night Mass, is held from December 16 to December 24 and is usually done as early as 4 or 5 o clock in the morning. On the last day of the Simbang Gabi, which is Christmas Eve, it is called Misa de Gallo, which literally translates to Roosters Mass.
The Simbang Gabi originated in the early days of Spanish rule as a practical compromise for farmers who started their day before sunrise to avoid the heat in the fields. Priests began to say Mass in the early mornings instead of the evening novenas more common in the rest of the Hispanic world. This cherished Christmas custom eventually became a distinct feature of Philippine culture and is a symbol of sharing.
Spanish-Era Agricultural Practices
The Philippines is an agricultural country known for its rice, coconut and sugarcane plantations. Many farmers (also known as sacadas, campesinos, and casamacs) toiled all day with one break during noon when the heat would be at its peak. Losing an hour due to the unbearable temperatures, farmers worked hard and budgeted their time for fear of the ire of the local encargado, or administrator of the Spanish lord or encomendero/hacendero.
In between the planting and harvest seasons is a lull in the work imposed on the natives. Those who were old enough to Provide manual labour were gathered under the tributo system where they would have to work for free for the Spanish colonial government's building projects. The women also have their share of work tending to their vegetable gardens or tumana and as household help for the local political elite.
When the Christmas season would begin it was customary to hold novenas in the evenings. The priests saw that the people despite fatigue wanted to attend. As a compromise, the clergy began to hold Mass in the early dawn when the land would still be dark before the natives went out to toil in the fields again. The custom spread and it evolved into a distinctly Philippine tradition to attend Mass at a rather early time.