Growing up in the Philippines, I’ve taken for granted the traditions and celebrations we do every year. Christmas starts in September. You won’t miss it because radio stations and establishments start playing Christmas songs on the first day of September. It’s also a very particular type of Christmas song. It’s the ones sang my Jose Mari Chan, dubbed by Philippine popcult enthusiasts as the Father of Philippine Christmas, probably more popular than Santa himself. Over the next months they’ll start rolling out the ones sang by Mariah Carey and other artists but it always starts with Jose Mari Chan. I didn’t pay attention to this until one day while on a stop over from a long haul trip, I heard Jose Mari Chan’s voice across the parking lot. It was September 1. By the time December rolls around, everyone is so hyped up and celebratory. However there’s other big holidays in the year that people anticipate. I’d say there’s three major ones: It’s All Soul’s and All Saint’s, Christmas, and Holy Week.
All Soul’s and All Saint’s fall on November 1st and 2nd. These dates often fall during “sembreak”, a two-week semestral break that happens between October and November. These two days are dedicated to remembering loved ones who’ve passed on. Most people will be in the cemeteries, staying overnight, lighting candles and prayers. For people who grew up in smaller cities like myself, it’s also the chance to see your friends. A relief from the week long time spent in our family homes, with most of us doing chores.
With everyone in the cemeteries, you’re bound to bump into everyone- your neighbour, your old neighbour from when you were 8 years old, your bestfriend’s ex, your ex’s bestfriend, your bestfriend, your ex, your dormmate, that fling… etc. etc.
Some people even cemetery-hop. The thing is, most families will always often prepare a feast at the cemetery. I once visited an older cemetery in the city and it looked like a night market with people barbecuing and drinking. The cemetery I go to is quieter and wider in expanse. It overlooks the city’s river and has one of the best views in the city. While it’s not as populated, I still often see people from school. Well off families even have air conditioned structures complete with a toilet. I’ve heard they now even do Halloween Trick or Treat contest for the kids. While All Soul’s is supposed to be a sombre affair, there’s another Holiday that’s more sombre. Holy Week.
Holy week, pre-covid was the only time of year when Metro Manila would be clear of traffic for two weeks. Almost nothing would be open not even malls.
My favourite part of Holy Week is always the procession. Since I was a kid I’ve always been fascinated when people walk along the streets carrying figures of saints while holding their lighted candles and saying the prayers I’ve somehow memorized during vigils held in different homes. My maternal grandmother’s family is Catholic, though not as devout, they would still pray the rosary everyday and knew all the verses. Sometimes in her sleep, my grandmother would utter these prayers. I would sleep beside my grandmother on nights when I felt terrified of ghosts and ‘aswangs’ and the sound of her prayers and breathing would lull me to sleep (I still did this even during my late teens. )
My favourite part of the procession would be Mary decked in black garments- I used to call her Black Mary but I think she’s supposed to be Mary of Sorrows. In the southern part of the Philippines, Mindanao where I grew up, we would usually eat binignit during Holy Week and do the station of the cross.
If we had more energy, we would do a Visita Iglesia where you visit different churches in a day. I have tried doing the kneel walk towards the altar across the church’s red carpet and peeking at Jesus’ lying sculpted figure. Because Holy Week usually falls on the summer months we spend this with our huge extended filipino families or family friends. A lot of non-religious families will spend this time travelling to different islands or going on beach trips, while some prefer to rest at home. I’ve done all these in variations throughout my childhood.
In the years since moving back to Manila, I was able to witness Holy Week in Luzon. My bestfriend in college, Deng invited me to her home in Bulacan over the Holy Week weekend and I never say no because her mom cooks me burong mustasa everytime I visit. Even when Deng goes home to Bulacan on her own she’d bring me some burong mustasa her mom made.
Deng and I met up at the bus terminal in Cubao and the trip to Bulacan felt like 30 mins. because we were chatting all the way there. Usually bus terminals will be filled with people trying to go home to their provinces. But we decided to leave later in the week and were able to secure seats for ourselves.
When we arrived, there was a dozen penoy (hardboiled duck egg) waiting for us. Deng and I probably ate three each, okay.. maybe 5 each, we kind of lost count. We both love Penoy that has some soup inside it and it was hard to find in Manila so we were doing this happy dance in the kitchen. Then we walked to where the procession was happening. There was a total of 115 ‘poon’ (religious figures) depicting the story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. Deng explained that there were fewer poons before but more and more families wanted to participate in the procession. Most of these poons belong to different families.
It was my first time actually witnessing this because I only ever see Mary of Sorrows being carried around.
We waited for the end of the procession because it’s when all the different Marys are paraded.
We went home and ate sinugbang hito (grilled catfish) with a side of Penoy egg mixed in with tomatoes. Before sleeping we’d drink this delicious tea called Ali Tea that Deng’s brother brought from Dubai. The next day we visited the wet market to buy Talaba (oysters.) Kuya Weng, Deng’s brother was home for a month and he was our Waze to the wet market. Dan (Deng’s boyfriend) and I joked that her brother was like a cat because he never really speaks to us. I’d talk to Kuya Weng and I usually get a grunt or a shrug, Dan told me Kuya Weng’s only ever talked to him when they were on their 6th year as a couple.
We also visited the historical Barasoain Church, known to be the “cradle of democracy” in the east. It was where the Malolos Constitution, the basic law of the first Philippine Republic was drafted. The Barasoain Church used to be printed in the old ten-peso bill. The old ten peso bill had a cat somewhere sitting on top of the church, and we were debating which side the cat was at.
Then we had lunch at Kalye Mabini. For Catholics, you’re not supposed to eat red meat during Holy Week until Sunday but Kalye Mabini’s specialty was ribs so, uhm, we made a little detour on that department.
We also bought inipit and fried itik (duck.) We were looking for halo-halo but the stores were closed so not seen in photos is the detour we took to this store that sells… panties! We bought panties. yup, they were cheap and of good quality.
When we got home Mommy Ponce (Deng’s mom) had already cooked suso (snails) they asked me if I ate suso and I said I did which is true, just that it wasn’t the kind I knew but when I tasted it it was really good. It was cooked in gata (coconut milk.) In the afternoon Deng and I cleaned the oysters while they set up the inflatable pool.
The oysters were so fresh and delicious, I will never look at oysters in restaurants the same way, especially when we laboured for it! We opened the oysters with knives and would review the clump of oysters almost 4 times to see if we missed any.
At night we took a dip in the pool with our drinks while Mommy Ponce watched on in her rocking chair. Kuya Weng’s friends came by later in the night for drinks. They also set-up a rented karaoke machine which all of us used til the wee hours of morning. They told us they weren’t informed about the pool party and should have brought swimming gear. The inflatable pool belonged to Deng’s twin nieces but they already moved to Saudi Arabia so the joke was that we were the twins all grown up.
On Easter Sunday, Mommy Ponce cooked Kare-Kare, a stew made up of oxtail, leafy greens and a thick, savory peanut sauce. We were now officially welcome to eat red meat. After this meal, the family sent us off to bus terminal. But before that, we made sure to drop by the street food market and also buy some chicharon for the trip back to Metro Manila.
It can be hard being a Catholic at times because we know of so many abuses by the church, and don’t get me started about some of these priests. Tbh, I’m more of a nominal Catholic. My family is a hodgepodge of religious beliefs and we’ve just sort of created our own belief system and have stopped attending church services. Of course, my born again aunts from the paternal side have tried again and again to evangelize us. But that’s another story.
During these months I always appreciate being exposed to the Catholic faith. It’s interesting, colourful, and it somehow keeps me grounded. Even if Deng and I grew up in different regions in the country, spoke different languages, we still somehow share a similar history and experience. We click faster, and ease into each other’s lifestyles seamlessly than most of our peers raised in cities, devoid of such traditions. Lastly, it also reminds me so much of a carefree, and fun childhood.