If you jumped for joy when the first drop of rain fell on our soil after a very long drought, then you will understand the fiestas of May. If you felt so relieved when it rained, marking the end of this terrible heat brought by the El Nino, then you know why May is celebrated with flowers and festivals. If you were so happy for the farmers so could not plant because their fields cracked and dried, then you can feel the gratitude at the heart of their celebrations. There is no civilization, primitive or present, without festivities.
The fiesta is a very important element of our culture and our history. Alejandro R. Roces tells us in his coffee table book, Fiesta, that “the fiesta played a major role in the making of the Filipino.” (Alejandro Roces, Fiesta, Vera-Perez Inc. 1980, p. 9) In the past, our ancestors were scattered among the 7,100 and more islands that comprised our nation. In the first place, there was no country to talk about. We were grouped into barangays or balanghais, small close-knit Malay communities. A barangay was a boat used by the early Malays in migrating to the Philippines. Eventually, it meant a boatload of people, or a clan. The word, barkada, originally means a ‘gang’ or a ‘barangay’ and therefore, kabarkadahan literally means shipmates.
When the Spaniards came, we were to be conquered by the sword and the cross. They wanted us to be one nation, under the banner of Spain. But what can bring everyone, every scattered barangay into one community?
Civilization was about being together; living not only as a clan, but in a community. So the Spanish friars brought out a program that would put the decentralized society ‘under the bells’ — the extent of a community was “the hearing distance of the bell.” The answer was the fiesta, the time when everyone comes to the town church, to the table of the Lord at least three times a year: Holy Week, Corpus Christi and the feast of the patron saint.
In the past, the churches that brought Filipinos together under the bells were made of bamboo and nipa, constructed Filipino style. But it was the Jesuit, Fr. Antonio Sedeno SJ, who was credited to have introduced stone, lime and tiles into the construction of the churches, most of them, survive until today. Take for example the two oldest churches of Bohol like Baclayon and Loboc. With the construction of these churches and belfries, the bells became larger and larger directly proportional to the expansion and population of the town.
The fiesta was a reunion. It was in that celebration that the early Filipinos return to their roots, to the things that comprised their identity. They celebrated their ethnicity with the fiesta. It was like a family whose bond were strengthen when the children feasted together at the cabecera of the home.
And so, wherever they were, Bicolanos returned for the Penafrancia fluvial procession. The people of Quezon: for the Lucban Festival called the Pahiyas. The people of Pulilan, Bulacan come for a grand revelry at the Carabao Festival. Aklanons marked the day for the Ati-Atihan. By the 18th and 19th century, the clan was replaced by the community. Eventually, we would hold national holidays as a country.
But what made the fiesta more felt and palpable? It was its regularity in small doses. The introduction of the Sunday mass brought the people closer, congregating more often than before. It was a day of celebration since it was “the Lord’s Day” and thus Sundays were not just a time to worship God. It was also a time to get to know the people of the community. You only had to attend mass to know the latest gossip and the current fashion. In fact, it was the Sunday ritual that had become responsible for the evolution of the Filipino attire.
But it was in the month of May, that people of the soil found ways to celebrate. As other towns planned their revelry in other months, the towns that owed their existence and livelihood from agriculture had their calendars marked when the first sign of rain fell, signifying the time to plant. To these folks, rain was a blessing from God. And thus, we heard the old telling us to rejoice at the beginning of the rainy season. The first drops of rain, they believed, were the tears from the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. Those tears were shed out of pity for her children who were suffering from the dry spell.
No wonder, the whole month of May was dedicated to two specific themes: Mary and agriculture. In fiestas, both the spiritual and the practical intertwines and merges.
So today, when you are so happy that the rains have arrived to water the earth, our ancestors looked at the event as a heirophany, an experience of God. The flowers that bloom in profusion are brought to the altar by the children in what we call, the Flores de Mayo. Inside the church that brought people under the bells, the children would put flowers on the altar of the Virgin while praying the rosary, the beads of roses. At the end of the Flores de Mayo, whenever the community decided to end the ritual, a procession is held. Every little girl are assigned a title of Mary in the litany of the rosary. The last sagala of the Flores de Mayo ends with the Rosa Mystica, or the Mystical Rose.
Another is the Santacruzan. It celebrates the great women in the history of salvation. It is a celebration of womanhood: the great women who participated in salvation history. At the final stretch of the Santacruzan is Queen Helena and her son, Constantine who would become the first Christian emperor and the first ruler who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. Thus, strictly speaking, the Reyna Elena, the queen and mother, is the highlight of the Santacruzan as distinguished from the procession of the Flores de Mayo.
However today, the Flores de Mayo and the Santacruzan are slowly merging into one religious pageantry. It is good to know that all these fiestas are celebrations of the great women in the history of the Christian faith.
Finally, the celebrations of May will not be complete without the mention of San Isidro Labrador, the patron of farmers. There are two fiestas that are worth mentioning. First, the Pahiyas of Lucban and Sariaya, Quezon. It is the most colorful of all fiestas: with the multi-colored rice leaves called the kiping to the flowers and fruits that hung as ornaments that adorn every single nook and cranny of their homes. It is indeed a festival of environmental art. Adorned are gift-laden bamboo that are lowered when the image of San Isidro passes their homes; all in homage to their patron saint who ensures a fruitful harvest.
The second is the Carabao Festival of Pulilan, Bulacan. San Isidro Labrador’s religious symbols are the plow and the oxen. The story goes that he worked for only one landowner called, Juan de Vargas. One day, Senor Vargas learned that San Isidro was always at church, and thus it hindered him from working. So he went to see for himself, but when he was about to reprimand him, he saw, not only San Isidro’s plow but two white oxen being led by invisible plowers. Juan de Vargas realized that San Isidro was getting help from the Lord.
Along the way, the people of the Pulilan took that story and made it their own. They made the plow and carabao the emblems in the fiesta. Before the festival, these beasts of burden were trained to kneel as long as possible. On the day itself, a contest was held: the longest decorated carabao wins.
Fiestas are living traditions. It is preserved because a community wills that it should be kept, enriched, and celebrated. Look closely, a fiesta is a big event that is carefully organized and carried out by a lot of people from the church, the community and the government. These relics of the past are brought to the present to remind us of who we are and the things that we have always been grateful for.
It is said that a nation is bound by the things they love. So too we are bound by the things we hold dear. And if we believe that the Philippines is a country worth dying for, then it is also a nation worth celebrating.
Think about close-knit families: the bond between each member is strengthened by a common memory of their loved ones. Every individual’s story is added to the family’s memoria, a collection of stories. It is these memories that people talk about when they celebrate.
So too with us: when we come to a fiesta, we celebrate a common memory. We come home to tell, share and relive our stories. But we come home to tell our stories over food and drink. We gather in a celebration. We become one in a fiesta.
If you think you have lost touch with who you are and the people you love, the answer is simple: find time to enjoy their company. Years of separation can be bridged by one celebration.