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Philippine traditions

Musings on ‘Araw ng Patay’

Call me strange, but like Christmas, All Saints’ Day has been among my favorite holidays. In fact many of my fond childhood memories were at the North Cemetery where my Lola coerced all of us to visit on All Saints’ Day every year without fail during her lifetime. “Norte,” as we referred to the public cemetery, was never a touristic spot. It was not serene and relaxing even on ordinary days. It was insane and chaotic every first of November.

But there was something about the sight, smell, and presence of so many people in an old decrepit cemetery that I have always found appealing. Certainly, the picnic that came with the annual ritual was part of it. We have had an unwritten rule that the picnic fare must be special, probably because of the awareness that your neighbors in the cemetery may say something about you if you brought only everyday fare. So our fare always consisted of holiday food: kare-kare, crispy pata, and caldereta—with lots and lots of dessert.

Then, there was the customary contest of who among the siblings could come up with the biggest balls from the melted wax of candles. The trick is to ask other people in the cemetery, in the nicest manner, for their melted and wasted wax. Without being aware of it, the annual contest was actually very good training on personality development. It taught us how to be in the good graces of folks whom we barely know.

There too was the fellowship with those whom you only see once a year on All Saints’ Day. Truth to tell, as I grew up, the food and the wax ball contest became only secondary to the thrill of seeing your once-a-year neighbors. There was the usual “how have you been since last year” and the “who’s new in the cemetery”—referring to who have gone underground rather than aboveground in the past year.

Whatever way one looks at it, All Saints’ Day is a party for us Filipinos. It probably is the biggest party annually since it’s inevitably celebrated within the limited confines of cemeteries.

Still, beyond the fanfare, there is too the serious side of All Saints’ Day. I have to admit that during the years that I spent in foreign lands for studies, I found it strange that foreign cultures did not celebrate All Saints’ Day like we do. It took me a while to realize why this is strange from the Filipino point of view. For Westerners in particular, life consists of a beginning and an end. You are born, you live and then you die. Full stop. Certainly, our 500 years of contact with the West have been sufficient to ingrain in us a similar linear perspective of existence.

But it’s not quite the same with us Filipinos. All Saints’ Day is a testament to it. Yes, we do believe that death is an end. But because of our almost pagan version of Christianity, we do have the sense that death is also a beginning. We celebrate All Saints’ Day not only because we want to remember our loved ones who have gone on to the other world. We celebrate it also, in fact we throw an annual party for it, because we know that death is not just an end but a beginning as well. Why else would we be so jovial in the manner by which we celebrate the day for the dead? It must be because in our unique world view as Filipinos, we know that the death of our loved ones mark the start of a perpetual tomorrow.

Still, there is also a utilitarian value to the manner in which we celebrate November 1. Even if one were not as transcendental in his view of the annual event, there is still this obligation to stop and drop everything at least once a year and make that trek to the cemetery. This ensures that no one is forgotten even after he or she has died. It’s also an assurance to all those who are living that when we die, we too will not be forgotten.

Somehow, there’s solace in the thought that regardless of who we are and what we made of ourselves during our lifetime, those who will survive us will celebrate in our remembrance definitely at least once a year.

Happy Araw ng Patay to one and all!