by B.J. Stolbov
I’m startled awake by every dog in the neighborhood going off, howling and barking. I’ve never heard such an ungodly uproar. Nothing like this has happened here before. It’s pitch black outside. There are no streetlights in this neighborhood; there are no streets, only dirt trails out there. I roll over and look at my clock. It’s 3:30AM. I have no idea what’s going on.
There’s a light on in the kitchen and my host Mother is up. She is boiling water, making herself a cup of tea.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“Mass,” she answers.
“Four o’clock mass.” She sits down. “The Catholics are going to church.” She sips her tea.
“At four o’clock?”
It’s nine days before Christmas. The Philippines is the only Christian country in Asia. Beginning this morning, December 16, the Christians will get up and go to early morning mass every day until Christmas. The Catholics have to wake up this early because their churches will be full and the mass will start exactly at 4AM.
My host Mother, sitting in her bathrobe, heating a larger pot of water for her bucket shower, is Protestant, a Methodist. For the next nine days, she will attempt to attend morning services at the much more reasonable hour of 6AM. And she invites me.
I’ve been living in the Philippines for a year now. I’m a 61-year-old male and, among other various professions, I’m a writer. Rather than retire, I’m way too young to retire and this writer doesn’t want to retire, I decided to join the Peace Corps. Now, I’m living a fascinating life with a Filipino family and teaching high school English in one of the most remote and beautiful provinces in the Philippines.
Misa de Gallo is a mass performed very early in the morning for nine mornings before Christmas. Catholicism in the Philippines is mixed with local tribal religious practices and observances. For attending church for all nine days, they believe that they will be rewarded here on earth: they will get their wishes fulfilled. If they don’t attend these morning masses every morning, their wishes won’t be fulfilled and, besides that, their neighbors and their priest will know they’ve slept in.
After the traditional 40-minute mass, outside the church, the food vendors will be selling their wares of bibingkang kanin (rice baked on a clay platter with margarine spread on top and then heated over charcoal) and puto-bungbong (violet-colored glutinous rice packed in a bamboo tube and pushed out into waiting hands).
For the Methodists, their service starts at approximately 6AM. The service runs about an hour to an hour and a half. During the service, the church fills slowly with congregants. The nine mornings will give the minister the opportunity to tell the different versions of the Nativity and give different versions of how Christmas is more about giving than receiving. It also gives the choir and the congregation the chance to sing almost all of the Christmas carols. By the end of the service, the church will be may be half-full. Afterwards, there will be some coffee, pastries, and chit-chat; then it’s off to the rest of the day. The Philippine Methodists, too, believe that for attending every morning they will get their wishes fulfilled.
I hope to make it to all nine mornings. Then, my wishes will be . . . world peace, and a little more sleep.
B.J. Stolbov is a novelist, poet, essayist, short story writer, and technical writer. He is the author of the novel “Last Fall” (Doubleday), the book of poetry “Walks” (Foot Print Press) and numerous technical manuals. He is currently teaching high school English to Ilocano-speaking students in the Philippines.