The growing consciousness of the important role of women in Christian faith has been brought about by many feminist Catholic theologians and their continuous writings on the subject.
But long before this consciousness came about, the Filipino community particularly the Tagalogs concocted a popular retelling of biblical and historical female personages who contributed to the faith. It culminates with Queen Helena (Reyna Elena) who embarked on a pilgrimage to find the true cross of Christ. In the religious pageant, Reyna Elena is accompanied by a young Constantine who became the first emperor to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. In towns who really know the tradition, they have San Macario mounted on a carroza. St. Macarius accompanied the Queen to the Holy Land.
There is no clear history as to the Santacruzan’s origins. The Tagalog region credits the beginning of the santacruzan or the Sta. Cruz de Manila after the declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception on 8 December 1854. In 1867, Mariano Sevilla translated and published the devotional Flores de Maria or the “Mariquit na Bulaclac na sa Pagninilaynilay sa Buong Buan nang Mayo ay Inihahandog nang manga Devoto cay Maria Santisima” (The Flowers of Mary or the Beautiful Flowers Prayer for the whole month of May is dedicated by the devotees to Mary, most holy).
Since the Filipinos have a great devotion to the Holy Mother, a pageantry that involves a retelling of stories of faith will gain a large following. Philippine festivals begins in the first week of May with the Flores de Mayo. In some parts of the country, May is the time of fiestas and celebrations. To certain towns whose patron is San Isidro Labrador, the patron of farmers, revelry has already began with the Pahiyas of Quezon and the Carabao festival of Pulilan, Bulacan. A few towns away, the dancers of Obando are already twirling to the fandango. While the Boholanos are homeward bound for a series of town fiestas. So, while everyone is in a celebratory mood, the Santacruzan is held as the culminating event of the Maytime festivities everywhere. No wonder it holds the title, Queen of all Philippine Festivals.
The line-up of the Santacruzan tells a story. It begins with the ceriales: a cross, two candles, and in many processions, even with the boat of incense and the censer. Altar boys carrying the ceriales lead any religious procession. It tells you that the event has spiritual and catechetical significance. It is officially recognized by the Church as a practice of piety. The event therefore begins and ends in the town’s church.
A proper Santacruzan will begin with Methuselah, the legendary man who lived a thousand years. He is usually a child with a beard riding a cariton. He fries (at least acts like stirring) rice over a wok. He is a reminder that whatever glitters does not stay forever. What matters in life are the ones that are eternal.
After that, the Philippine context is put to the fore with Reyna Banderadas, who wears a red, white and blue terno and holding, obviously, the Philippine flag. Sometimes, we have Aetas to symbolize our pre-Hispanic lives before the coming of Christianity and Reyna Mora follows to tell us about the dominant religion during the time.
The coming of Christianity is symbolized by the virtues of faith (Reyna Fe with a cross), hope (Reyna Esperanza with an anchor) and charity (Reyna Caridad with a red heart). And then follows the sagalas Abogada who defends the poor, Sentenciada who symbolizes the innocents sentenced to death by King Herod, and Justicia who carries a scale.
The Biblical characters are next. The women of the Old Testament occupy a prominent place in the event. Reina Saba is the Queen of Sheba who sought Solomon for his wisdom. Infanta Judith is the judge who killed Holofernes to save her people. And finally, a personal favorite, Reina Esther is the Jewish Queen of Persia who protected her exiled people in Babylon from persecution.
The women of the Passion and Death of Christ succeeds the Old Testament characters. Veronica with the image of Christ on a cloth walks before the Tres Marias: Mary Magdalene with a perfume bottle, Maria Jacobe with a broom, Maria Salome with an incenser or oil. To add more sagalas, some will carry objects that would remind us of the Passion of Jesus: the money bag of Judas, the rooster of Peter, the spear and nails of the crucifixion.
In santacruzans that incorporate the Flores de Mayo, the final group are the titles of Mary. Usually eight children with the letters AVE MARIA head this part of the procession. Reina de las Estrellas (Queen of Stars) carries a star attached to a wand while Reina de las Propetas has an hour glass. Reina Cielo (Queen of Heaven), Reina de la Paz (Queen of Peace), Reina de las Flores and then Rosa Mistica hold a bouquet of flowers.
Finally, Reyna Elena highlights the procession. Queen Helena carries the cross with the young Constantine with her. She walks demurely under a decorated arc, usually well-lit and carried by the most handsome boys of the town. However, in towns whose prominent families pride themselves when their daughters are given recognition, they would give anything to secure that dream. Many santacruzans extend the title: you can have as many Reyna Elenas as you want, but the star is called, the Emperatriz.
As unassuming as he was, San Macario follows quietly. In identifying the true cross, St. Macarius of Jerusalem suggested that an ill woman be touched by the three crosses. One cross healed the woman instantly. Upon Emperor Constantine’s wish, a church was built on Christ’s sepulcher; the church became a basilica in the later years.
A band and a choir sings “Dios Te Salve Maria” in Latin. When it gets tired, they shift to English and the vernacular versions of Ave Maria to add some variety to a repetitive chant.
The santacruzan then ends in the town’s church. The parish priest blesses all who participated. The people then proceeds to the dinner venue usually the town plaza or gym where the santacruzan ball will also be held. The sagalas and their escorts finally dance the night away. After all, they spent a lot on their outfits.
Does the santacruzan have a future?
Celebrations are vital elements in a culture. As much as we preserve our artifacts in a museum to remember our past, and our written heritage is bound in libraries, we should make an equal effort to study our ritual traditions. How we do things contributes to our identity as Filipinos.
And like all celebrations, the santacruzan has to be nurtured by a people who acknowledges its significance not just in faith but in terms of building communities. We can do this by incorporating the history and the role of the santacruzan as part of our lessons in classrooms or lectures about our heritage.
Or see the potential in its creative concept.
The reason many of our citizens do not have a sense of our nationhood can be attributed to a lack of a collective memory. If Christians celebrate the bible that contains a collection of stories of faith, then Filipinos are brought together by a common memory.
Now a weird and wild idea. There are many women who continued to nurture our faith even after Queen Helena. If the santacruzan is a Philippine festival and its characters are extended depending on the number of sagalas, why can’t we extend or add another santacruzan-type of procession having the women in our history that contributed in nation-building?
Think: Melchora Aquino and Gabriela Silang on the runway? Cory Aquino in yellow? Or our mothers whose sweat and blood made us who we are today. Perhaps, we can re-tell our stories every year, so that our children remembers that building a nation is a contribution of who we are, what we have and what we hope for.