Thursday, 18 December 2014

Myths about the misas de aguinaldo

Myth 1: The misas de aguinaldo were established in the 16th century in Mexico.
Fact: The misas de aguinaldo were imported in the 16th century to Mexico.

On 5 August 1586, Pope Sixtus V issued the bull Licet is from the Basilica of Saint Mark the Evangelist on the Capitoline Hill. We mention the place because some authors have claimed that the incipit of the bull was Apud Sanctum Marcum. In the standard composition of papal documents, the preposition apud usually appears towards the end of the document to mark the place where the bull was given. You may check Summorum Pontificum and you will see apud Sanctum Petrum towards the end.

The bull is not even about the misas de aguinaldo! It is about the missionary activity of the Augustinians, at this time organised as the Order of the Hermit Friars of Saint Augustine. In order to promote church attendance, Pope Sixtus V granted a partial indulgence of twenty years and twenty quarantines (approximately 22 years) in perpetuity to the natives who (1) visited the churches of the Augustinians on the feasts of the Blessed Virgin, or of Saint Augustine, or of other saints of the Order, or of Saint Lazarus, or of Saint Michael the Archangel; or (2) attended the misas de aguinaldo in honour of the virginity of the Blessed Virgin. To gain the indulgence, the natives must pray (1) for the exaltation of Holy Mother Church, (2) for the propagation of the Catholic faith, and (3) for the constancy of those newly converted to the faith in the aforesaid faith.

This indult was granted through the efforts of Fray Diego de Soria, at one time, procurator of the Augustinian provinces of Mexico, who is also credited to have introduced the custom of the posadas in Mexico.

Myth 2: We cannot establish why the misas de aguinaldo were named thus.
Fact: We can establish that the misas de aguinaldo were named thus after that ancient custom of feeding the poor after the Masses celebrated in honour of the Expectation of the Blessed Virgin for a period of nine days prior to Christmas.

It is important to set forth that the elements misa and aguinaldo developed separately, and sometime in the Middle Ages, they became linked.

We owe the element misa to the feast of the Expectation of the Blessed Virgin. In 656 A.D., the Tenth Council of Toledo decreed that the feast of the Annunciation be transferred from 25 March to 18 December. This was the time of the Old Hispanic Rite. With the introduction of the Roman Rite in Spain, the transferred Annunciation began to be distinguished from the original feast, until the feast was retained as belonging to the Expectation by Pope Gregory XIII on 30 December 1573 with the bull Pastoralis Officii cura.

That the feast of the Expectation was celebrated for nine continuous days before Christmas, we know from the rescript of the Sacred Congregation of Rites on 22 November 1687. On behalf of the Regular Theatine Clergy of the Sainte-Anne-la-Royale in Paris, Cardinal Paluzzo Altieri obtained permission from the Congregation for the same Order to recite each year the Office of the Expectation “beginning on the first day of the novena of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, as it is recited, by the authority of the Sacred Congregation, in other parts of the world.”

We owe the second element aguinaldo to the Mozarabs. Etymologists disagree in the origin of the word. Those who search in the Latin horizon propose hoc in anno, alluding to the monetary compensation given at the end of the year, but in order to arrive at aguinaldo, we are led to a labyrinth of morphophonemic changes. Those who favour an Arabic origin, as this author, simply take out ganaya, which both alludes to wealth and to song. Placing the Arabic article to the derivative guinayto, we easily arrive at alguinaytu, and the rest is just dissimilation and metathesis. The Mozarabic pathway actually explains the semantic duplicity of aguinaldo as both a Christmas gift and a Christmas carol.

That aguinaldos were given in the Middle Ages during December, we ascertain from a record of a grant or reward made by the ayuntamiento of Murcia to Alfonso Torres, warden, and his wife Bertomeva Fernández de Leyenda on 16 December 1469. This, however, is a civil example of the aguinaldo, which demonstrates the separate development of both elements.

We can never probably answer when the misas became linked to the aguinaldos, but we can answer how they became linked. Our answer comes from the vita of Saint Simon de Roxas, who was declared servant of God on 25 March 1753 by Pope Clement XII, beatified on 19 March 1766 by Pope Clement XIII, and canonised on 3 July 1988 by Pope Saint John Paul II. Saint Simon, who founded the Congregation of the Slaves of the Most Sweet Name of Mary on 14 April 1612, commanded that after Mass on every third Sunday of each month, and on the feast of the Expectation and the remaining days until Christmas, seventy-two poor people are to be fed in memory of the seventy-two years of our Lady. This corporal work of mercy is the aguinaldo that eventually became inseparable to the misas of the Expectation. In fact, the author of the vita calls it the aguinaldo de Nuestra Señora. It would not be surprising that these misas celebrated before the aguinaldos de Nuestra Señora would eventually be called misas de aguinaldo.

It is a farfetched supposition, but do you not wonder why we Filipinos eat bibingka and puto bumbong after the misas de aguinaldo? That is probably how the original feeding of the hungry instituted by Saint Simon de Roxas survived.

Myth 3: The Third Provincial Council of Mexico ordered that the misas de aguinaldo be celebrated at dawn.
Fact: The Third Provincial Council of Mexico actually forbade Masses to be celebrated after sunset and before sunrise.

The bishops of Mexico convened the Third Provincial Council of Mexico in 1585. Its acts and decrees were confirmed by Pope Sixtus V on 28 October 1589, and authorised by the Spanish King, Felipe III, in a royal decree dated 18 September 1591. [Note: Under the royal patronage, no bull from Rome will be accepted in the Spanish Realms without the decree of the Crown.] The pertinent decree reads:
Let nobody celebrate Mass before dawn, and neither after noon (unless due to a privilege conceded to it for the purpose), and certainly, let the Masses, which in Spanish are called misas de aguinaldo, be not celebrated before the day will have begun to dawn.
The prohibition to celebrate Masses before sunrise is a consequence of another decree in the same Council that orders the sealing of all ecclesiastic edifices when the Angelus bell is given at sunset, in order to preserve them from desecration and theft. They can only be opened at night on Christmas Eve and during the Easter Triduum.

To replace the misas de aguinaldo, which, on account of its hour of celebration, had been forbidden by the Third Provincial Council of Mexico, Fray Diego Soria introduced the posadas.

Myth 4: The misas de aguinaldo were celebrated at dawn to allow farmers to attend Mass before tending their fields.
Fact: The custom of celebrating the misas de aguinaldo, as well as the feast of the Expectation, at dawn was independent of the agricultural dispositions of the people.

The custom itself of celebrating Liturgies at the earliest hours goes back to 380 A.D. Later, the hour of celebrating Mass depended on the canonical hours. Feasts were normally celebrated after the hour of terce, or in certain cases, after the hour of none. These hours are not pre-dawn hours, because the reckoning of canonical hours depended on the position of the sun in the sky, not on absolute time. Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, in his diary of the voyage of Christopher Columbus, writes on 18 December 1492 that “at dawn, he [Columbus] commanded that the ship and the caravel be bedecked with arms and banners for the feast which was on this day that of Saint Mary of the O, or the commemoration of the Annunciation.”

Much later, in the 16th century, we read from a description of the customs of the see of Toledo that “the traditional day of the aguinaldo is the feast of the Nativity,” on which, “Mass after prime finished, the canons met in the Chapter’s Hall, according to use and custom, to greet one another and distribute the aguinaldo to the officials and the servers.” Prime is the first hour of the day, corresponding to sunrise. It is preceded by matins at midnight, and lauds between midnight and daybreak.

The only example we have of agriculture being linked to the misas de aguinaldo is the rescript of the Sacred Congregation of Rites on 24 January 1682. The dubium asked whether it is lawful to omit the Gloria and the Credo in the misas de aguinaldo from the second to the ninth day, if ancient and immemorial devotion might have applied the Masses for the recently sown fields and for the health of all people. The Sacred Congregation responded in the negative.

Myth 5: Fray Felipe Pardo, archbishop of Manila, complained to the Sacred Congregation of Rites about the behaviour of the people in the misas de aguinaldo, which provoked the dicastery to authorise the suppression of the custom.
Fact: Fray Felipe Pardo simply implemented the rescript of the Sacred Congregation of Rites concerning abuses committed in the misas de aguinaldo.

The complaint was submitted to the Sacred Congregation of Rites by the master of ceremonies of the cathedral of Seville, Don Diego Díaz de Escobar. He pointed out that the misas de aguinaldo were celebrated with Gloria and Credo and with only one collect, adding that laypeople joined with the choir in singing carols that provoked laughter. On 16 January 1677, the Congregation ordered that the abuses “are repugnant to the rubrics and to the opinions of those to whom these were related,” and “ought to be destroyed altogether.”

These laughter-provoking carols probably survive to this day. Examples we can mention are the carols Rín, rín (which mentions gypsies stealing the swaddling clothes of the Divine Infant) and Los peces en el río (which mentions the Blessed Virgin taking a bath with a spent bar of soap).

The rescript arrived in the Philippines in 1680 and Fray Felipe immediately suppressed the misas de aguinaldo. The custom only returned when he died on 1689.

[Note: The practice alleged as an abuse by Don Diego concerning the Gloria and the Credo was actually sanctioned by the Sacred Congregation of Rites thirty years earlier. In a rescript to the diocese of Angra, dated 2 September 1658, the Congregation noted that the Masses can be solemnly sung according to custom at the established canonical hour. Nevertheless, the rescript of 24 January 1682 categorically forbids the omission of the Gloria and the Credo.]

Myth 6: The misas de aguinaldo were celebrated continuously after 1682 until the present in all churches of the Philippines.
Fact: There are certain circumstances in the ecclesiastic history of the Philippines which indicate that the misas de aguinaldo died in some churches in the archipelago.

First, the misas de aguinaldo were celebrated as Sung Masses. The rubric in the 1913 Directorium Manilense uses the word cantantur in describing the action made with the misas de aguinaldo. In the rubrical language of the Church, the verb canto is strictly reserved for sung portions of the liturgy, whereas dico can be applied to both spoken and sung portions. We would like to think that all our churches during the Spanish era had choirs, but that was not always the case. In the provinces, only the principal church, besides the cathedral, would have been able to support a choir.

Second, the misas de aguinaldo were celebrated in candlelight. To navigate their way to the church during the novena, our ancestors invented the parol, taken directly from the Spanish farol, which means lantern. The cost of celebrating the misas de aguinaldo, considering that a parish had an entire church to partially light with candles for nine days, would have been overwhelming to that parish if it were of small means and meagre income. The price alone of the beeswax that was used in candles would have been constricting. Beeswax was not cheap, and it still is not. To get a picture of how expensive beeswax candles are, consider a standard altar candle, two feet in length and one inch in diameter. If you get a complete set of these candles, all six of them, in partial beeswax (with admixtures of other materials) nowadays, you will be confronted by a figure followed by four zeroes. And those zeroes are before the decimal. [Note: The ilustrados railed against the friars for imposing an exorbitant arancel on candles, conveniently forgetting to mention that the material used for candles during their time was expensive in the first place. This was the time when the Church did not tolerate adulterated matter in the candles used in Her liturgies.]

Third, when the suppression of the misas de aguinaldo was lifted, the Franciscans of the Philippines persisted in their proscription of the custom. In their statutes published after the provincial chapter they celebrated in Manila in 1867, the Franciscans reiterated their firm proscriptions to the misas de aguinaldo.
The aforesaid Guardians (of the Province) shall not permit in our churches that the misas de aguinaldo be sung, or motets, or Christmas carols during Mass.
This proscription of the misas de aguinaldo was unique and peculiar to the Franciscans of the Philippines, who came from the Alcantarine family of the Order. It appears that the prohibition is quite ancient, having been set forth in 1655. [Note: Among the peculiarities of the Province of Saint Gregory the Great, one would find the prohibition of the use of the dalmatic and the tunicle pursuant to the ancient custom of the Alcantarines. The friars were only allowed to use these vestments in funerals for laypeople whose survivors strongly demanded the highest honours for their beloved.]

Fourth, and this is, at the moment, anecdotal, the misas de aguinaldo were virtually already forgotten in many parishes in the archipelago at the crepuscule of Spanish rule that the new religious congregations that took over the churches attendant to the coming of the Americans had to actually revive the custom in their parishes and missions, and this effort of reviving the misas de aguinaldo was initially coldly received by their parishioners, who had long been accustomed to not waking up early for said Masses.

We have a tendency to look at our ecclesiastic patrimony as something consistent in terms of exercise. And, when it comes to a tradition that we Filipinos have owned as a distinguishing mark of our faith, our pride overtakes our better judgment, propped by a casual blindness of our own history, both civil and ecclesiastic, owing to the fact that most of the primary sources available are written in languages no longer spoken by both the literate and the illiterate majority.

Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.

All photos © Maurice Joseph M. Almadrones

Source: Allerite, Jesson. The history of the misa de aguinaldo: from Spain to the Philippine Islands. 2013. TS. Author’s private collection.


  1. Thanks for this scholarlyinformation Misa de aguinaldo. I just would like to know if this custom alive in Mexico or it is only in the Philippnes that it survived?

  2. Hi, Father. I cannot speak for the current status of the custom in Mexico. It might be alive in certain enclaves in Mexico which we cannot pinpoint. Outside Mexico, the custom, according to the Spanish practice, survives in Puerto Rico, in Colombia, in Venezuela, and other former colonies of Spain.

  3. Wow... thanks for this! May i ask permission to copy and paste?