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Nine mornings in SVG


by: Oswald FEREIRA Fri, Feb 24. 2012

Another Christmas Season has passed, and with it another season of Nine Mornings revelry. And while we claim that Nine Mornings is unique to St. Vincent, perhaps we should pause to consider from whence we inherited this tradition and look to see if the concept of pre-Christmas celebrations akin to Nine Mornings exists elsewhere.{{more}}

When I was a child growing up in the countryside of St. Vincent, I went for nine morning walks. The concept as explained to me then was that we were replicating the journey of the Three Wise Men as they followed the star to Bethlehem, where they found the Baby Jesus lying in the Manger. We would often gaze at the sky in hope of seeing a shooting star. Sometimes our walk ended on the beach, where we had a sea bath. Sometimes the village steel band would lead the walk, and it became more of a jig. Sometimes nine morning strollers would be mingling with carollers who were returning home from serenading or “singing out” from the previous evening.

The concept of activities nine mornings or evenings before Christmas abounds around the world, especially in countries with a Spanish colonial past and a Roman Catholic heritage.

What is the significance of nine? Why not seven, ten or twelve? Nine has significance in the Roman Catholic tradition, in that the number nine signifies a novena or nine days of prayer for a specific purpose in order to obtain graces. This is a long standing tradition in the Roman Catholic Church.

John Rybolt reports that a special Novena in preparation for Christmas was known in Rome from 1618. In 1721, Father Charles Vachetta, pastor of the Church of the Immaculate in Turin, Italy, wanted to give his parishoners something special for the Advent season of 1721. He gave them the gift of a Novena, which he wrote and which still exists up to today as the Christmas Novena from December 16 to 24. Christmas Novenas were also reported in Spain and France. Although the practice of the Christmas Novena is not universally practiced in the Catholic Church today, it still exists in many places and forms.

Spain was one of the colonial powers from the 1500’s on and as Catholicism was brought to its colonies, so, too, did the custom of the nine days before Christmas celebrations. No where is it more prevalent than in the Philippines. Christmas day in the Philippines is ushered in by the nine-day dawn masses from December 16 to 24. This is known as Misa de Gallo, Rooster’s Mass or mass “as the cock crows”. This is the most important Christmas tradition in the Philippines and is known as the Simbang Gabi and culminates in the Noche Buena (Midnight Mass) on Christmas Eve. The Simbang Gabi is considered as a Novena. After the masses, churchgoers often partake of the local delicacies sold outside the churches or in nearby markets before they go off to work or return to their homes.

A similar practice exists in Puerto Rico and Peru, where the Mass of the Carols runs from December 16 to 24 early each morning. After mass the carolling and music continues as people wend their ways home. In Venezuela it is known as the Misa de Aguinaldo and is often accompanied by fireworks and feasting. In Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, and El Salvador from December 16 to 24 there is La Posada, a procession with images of Joseph and Mary going house to house singing carols and requesting lodging for the Holy Family. After the procession there is often a fiesta with music and food and piñatas for the children. In Columbia from December 16 to 24, families gather at night around Nativity Scenes to pray the Novena de Aguinaldos, with much singing and feasting. In Nicaragua, from December 16 to 24, there is prayer in the home each evening followed by refreshments and singing of carols.

So, a religious nine-day novena of masses, prayers and processions followed by feasting and music, what a concept? How different or similar is this to the concept of Nine Mornings in SVG? But you may say that SVG has no tradition of Spanish colonialism. True, but we had the next best possibility – an influx of immigrants from Madeira in the mid 1800’s. Madeira is a part of Portugal and Portugal shares the Iberian Peninsula with Spain and has the same Catholic traditions as Spain. The principal devotion of the Madeiran Christmas tradition is the Missa de Parto or Childbirth Mass from December 16 to 24, nine mornings representing the nine months of pregnancy of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Sounds familiar?

And is there any pre-Christmas celebration tradition elsewhere in the Caribbean? It is evident in Puerto Rico in the Spanish tradition of the Mass of the Carols. But what of the John Canoe or “Jonkanoo” Christmas tradition of Jamaica, in which people parade the streets in costumes with much singing and dancing? Although there is no reference to a nine day period, the concept of pre-Christmas revelry has similarities. In fact the “Jonkanoo” is definitely tied to the period of slavery and therefore may pre-date the Nine Mornings festivities of SVG. In Trinidad, Grenada and Carriacou, there is the practice of Parang, a singing festival. The Parang season is generally longer than nine days and has similarities to the pre-Christmas custom of going home to home to sing carols – a custom in many islands of the Caribbean.

There is already one school of thought that links the Nine Morning celebrations of SVG to the 1920’s when a Vincentian member of the Dominican Order of the Catholic Church initiated a tradition of celebrating a Christmas Novena in the early hours of the morning. How similar is this to the Misa de Gallo, Misa de Aguinaldo or Mass of the Carols or Childbirth Masses of Madeira? It is highly possible that the Madeira immigrants who were devout Catholics brought this custom of Missa de Parto to St. Vincent, and by some stroke of fate it held on and developed to the Nine Mornings that we know today and claim to be uniquely SVG. The answer may lie somewhere in the archives of our history. Perhaps a scholar may find a reference to some newspaper article that traces the Nine Morning practice earlier than the 1920’s? In any case there appears to be an undeniable link to the Christmas Novena tradition of the Catholic Church, and despite claims of being unique to St. Vincent, its similarities to the Christmas traditions of former Spanish colonies is uncanny.