The only other time during the school year when kids get an extended break from school apart from Christmas is during Semana Santa, or Holy Week. It is mostly a three-day weekend, but since everyone is looking forward to this including the teaching staff, it is not unheard of to actually get a four-day break.
This is the week for solemn religious pageantry, starting with palaspasan, Palm Sunday. Much like during All Saints’ Day when the streets are crammed with flowers sellers the day before, much of the same happens the day before Palm Sunday, only this time the sellers are busy plaiting palm fronds into intricate designs, festoon them with flowers ready for blessing the day after. Newly blessed palm fronds replace the dried up old ones which have been sitting on private altars at home, or tied to the window sills in front of the house.
The real pageantry doesn’t really start until Wednesday night, when the first of a series of candlelit religious procession winds its way around the major streets in town. Religious icons of participants in the Passion of Christ are borne on flower-decked karosa or open carriages, their garments either newly made or freshly repaired for the occasion. The icons represented many of the secondary characters in the events leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ: many of the apostles like Peter, Paul and John, Saint Veronica and Mary Magdalene. One after another they are paraded across town, with a long line of candle-bearing participants on either side of them snaking their way along the route as well.
By Thursday afternoon, out of respect for the solemnity of the week, most activities would be at a standstill: office workers would have been let out early, and businesses would have mostly shut down for the day. The evening would be spent doing Visita Iglesia, with people going from one church to the next while recalling the Stations of the Cross. Radio and television stations would also be in a somber mood, voluntarily suspending regular programming in favour of more appropriate music and movies about the lives of saints in either Tagalog or English. I still remember bits and pieces of my favourite Tagalog movie about the last days of Christ, but can now only recall the name of the woman who played Mary the Mother of Jesus: Norma Blancaflor, in a movie which title I cannot even remember now, it was that long ago. The English language ones I still remember, as they used to show the same one over and over every year, especially “The Miracles of Our Lady of Fatima”, with a Jesuit priest, Father James Reuter providing commentary and reciting prayers in between scenes. Or the ones that only come around during this time of the year, movies like “Marcellino, Pan y Vino”, “The Song of Bernadette”, “The Reluctant Saint”.
This is also the evening when the pabasa, a sing-song recitation of the Passion of the Christ will be starting all over town. Each pabasa is a fulfillment of a household’s commitment and thanks to the Almighty in exchange for some favour wished for or granted: the healing of a sick family member, the completion of a safe journey or even for the memory of a departed soul. The pabasa lasts for twenty-four hours, and professional pabasa singers are hired for the occasion, with groups of two or three in rotation for the duration. Food and snacks are usually made available for the twenty-four hour period, and anyone, friend as well as stranger is welcome to sit and listen and partake of the food available.
It was also Thursday that I witnessed one of the more horrifying spectacles associated with Lent: the penitensiya, self-flogging by male penitents who go around town midday, ambling shoeless down the blistering concrete road, shirtless, their faces covered with cloth and wearing crowns of thorns. The hours of self-flogging would have broken the skin, blood running down their backs. It was for me a mixture of wonder and repulsion: I would always be terrified and would watch from the safe distance of the second floor window, but even that up high I can still remember what I imagined fresh blood smelled like. The sight might have been both shocking and abhorrent, but I was also transfixed and could not turn away.
A curious thing also happens Thursday night: the religious procession by the Aglipays, a breakaway Catholic faith which does not recognize the authority of the Roman Pope, take place. As a fringe religion, they are obviously outnumbered and do not have as much resources, so most things are done on a much smaller scale, including the icons in the procession, giving rise to this exchange that supposedly happened between a Roman Catholic and an Aglipayan:
RC: Ang liliit naman ng mga santo ninyo! (Oh my, your religious statues so tiny!)
A: Malalaki nga ang mga santo ninyo, pero mukha namang tanga! (Well, your statues are definitely bigger, but boy, do they have a stupid look on their faces!)
That’s definitely Filipino humour, but certainly shows the gap between the two religions. Not only in terms of economic disparity, for Aglipayan priests are also not celibate. It so happened that at the time, their local priest was considered good-looking, and many people most certainly watched their procession not only to look at the statues, but also to have a good look at the priest himself!
Biyernes Santo, Good Friday is definitely the day reserved for contemplation and soul-searching for many. In the old days, it was customary for all women to dress in black out of respect for the events of the day. Everything absolutely shuts down for the entire day, even our next door neighbour, the Chinese grocers. We were also forbidden to bathe that day, for whatever reason I am not sure why, and absolutely no games of any sorts were allowed, lest we be scolded and asked, ” Ano kayo, Hudyo?”! So it came as no surprise that the whole neighbourhood was totally scandalized when the newest Chinese business, a dry goods store, decided it would stay open the first Good Friday they moved in, and even worse, played their sound system loud enough for the whole street to hear.
Even the radio stayed quiet most of the day until the broadcast of the Siete Palabras, or the Seven Last Words of Christ, when those unable to attend in church are at least expected to tune in and listen. The churches would be totally crammed full for the middle of the afternoon service, and people who could not get there on time would end up standing for the whole duration, about two hours, in the stifling heat of the packed church. My father’s favourite Good Friday story involved a man, dressed to impress in his new black leather jacket (as one was always expected to come to church decently and appropriately attired), sweat trickling down his face in the heat of the church ready to keel over from the ordeal. I’m not even sure if this was a factual story or not, but it was certainly good enough a story for my father to tell every chance he got.
We were lucky enough to be in between two major streets, with a good view of any parade or spectacle that happened. It was also an added bonus for my father’s business, as he would set up a small stand in front of our store a couple of hours before the Good Friday procession, selling candles, which he would have bought wholesale from the grocer next door the day before. We would be one of the very few places selling candles that evening, so it was always a booming business. Late Friday afternoon, we’d be busy cutting out cardboard to fit the candles and serve as barriers between the melted wax and the people’s hands, and this would be about the extent of what we were allowed to do that day, apart from watching the religious-themed programs on television. Otherwise we had to be still and quiet out of reverence for the occasion.
Shortly after seven at night, from the south we’d hear the rattling of buho, split bamboo struck and shaken to make clacking sounds, signifying the approaching procession. It would be a long evening of seemingly endless sea of lit candles flanking more statues, this night in tableaus depicting the days leading up to the crucifixion. But prior to these scenes would have been the oversized statue of the Christ in death, covered with a crimson embroidered cloth, lying in a transparent glass coffin. This was the other thing apart from the penitents that always scared me the most, and I’m not sure what actually made it so: was it the oversized proportion, the sight of a dead body, or the realistic wounds and blood running down the statue’s face? Regardless of the reason, I would take one brief glance and immediately turn away as that was all I could stand. The procession would pass by in total silence; unlike the other days when it would be accompanied by a brass band playing somber music, this night’s procession was completely muted save for the rattling of the buho and the sounds of the wheels of the karosa rolling down the street. The Stations of the Cross would be depicted in three-dimensional scenes: the scourging, the crowning with thorns, the carrying of the cross, Christ before Pilate, the crucifixion, along with the statues from the nights before.
The smell of melting wax candles along with the scent of the fresh flowers decorating the carriages was a heady mix that is a part of the memories of the day. The long evening was also a chance to see friends and acquaintances that have joined the procession; we always caught glimpses of each other but no one waved, so important it was never to break the solemnity of the moment.
Then all too soon, the end comes, the last carriage bearing the statue of the Mater Dolorosa, the Sorrowful Mother, the icon of the Blessed Mother dressed all in black, sometimes midnight blue or very deep purple it might as well have been black. Looking heavenwards, Her palms joined together in grief-stricken prayer, tears running down Her cheeks, Her carriage followed by a band of women reciting the rosary out loud.
It would have been a fitting end to a very somber day, except that during many of those years, a most incongruous sight always seemed to throw an odd twist to the whole proceeding. For at the very tail end of the procession could be seen Alo, one of the town fools, tall thin barefoot Alo dressed in his regular oversized t-shirts and dark cotton shorts, his shaved head covered in a long lace woman’s veil, holding his candle and giving the whole event a singularly bizarre ending.
© September 2007