Chris­tian­ity and co­conuts

In The Philip­pines, vi­brant fes­ti­vals crowd the cal­en­dar Child­less women dance ec­stat­i­cally in the streets — to St Paschal if they want a boy and to St Clare if they want a girl

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Asia - MICHAEL ARDITTI

THERE are 7107 is­lands in The Philip­pines and at least as many fi­es­tas. De­pend­ing on your sched­ule, you can cel­e­brate lo­cal pro­duce through­out the year, such as co­conut (Jan­uary in San Pablo, La­guna), ba­nana (March in Baco, Ori­en­tal Min­doro), pineap­ple (June in Ca­marines Norte) and milk­fish (May in Dagu­pan, Pan­gasi­nan).

You can com­mem­o­rate the treaty of friend­ship be­tween a lo­cal chieftain and the Span­ish con­quis­ta­dor Miguel Lopez de Legazpi at the San­dugo fes­ti­val on the is­land of Bo­hol in March, the leg­endary ori­gins of Mount Mayon at the Ma­gayon fes­ti­val in Al­bay in May and tra­di­tional frog-catch­ing meth­ods at the Frog Fes­ti­val in San Fer­nando, Pam­panga in Oc­to­ber.

By far the great­est num­ber of the coun­try’s fi­es­tas, how­ever, are re­li­gious, with each dis­trict, city and prov­ince putting on pa­rades and pageants to hon­our its own pa­tron saint as well as many of the of­fi­cial church hol­i­days. The grand­est can hold their own with the much more cel­e­brated Mardi Gras in New Or­leans and Car­ni­val in Rio. In re­cent years, I have at­tended many Filipino fes­ti­vals in the course of re­search­ing my novel The Breath of Night. Friends ex­pressed sur­prise that I was mov­ing so far away from my com­fort zone, but what in­trigued me about The Philip­pines, and what makes it such a fas­ci­nat­ing desti­na­tion for a Western vis­i­tor is that, with the ex­cep­tion of the re­cently es­tab­lished East Ti­mor, it is the only Chris­tian coun­try in Asia.

Six out of seven Filipinos are Catholic, with another 6 per cent be­long­ing to in­de­pen­dent churches; the re­main­der are Mus­lim, Bud­dhist or Taoist, or sub­scribe to lo­cal cults. One in Abra prov­ince even wor­ships for­mer dic­ta­tor Fer­di­nand Mar­cos.

Mean­while, the in­flu­ence of preHis­panic in­dige­nous re­li­gion re­mains strong. As we stopped to re­lieve our­selves be­side a re­mote road in north Lu­zon, I was amazed to hear myso­phis­ti­cated guide mut­ter­ing in­can­ta­tions. He later con­fessed that he was beg­ging the par­don of any way­side spir­its that he might in­ad­ver­tently have wet. When asked if he be­lieved in th­ese spir­its, he ge­nially replied: ‘‘Only when I’m in the coun­try.’’

Such equiv­o­ca­tion is part of the Filipino mind­set. A char­ac­ter in The Breath of Night, com­ment­ing on his coun­try’s che­quered colo­nial past un­der the Span­ish and then the Amer­i­cans, refers bit­terly to its hav­ing ‘‘spent 300 years in a con­vent and 50 in Hol­ly­wood’’. Yet, while Filipinos may ex­press a deeply am­biva­lent at­ti­tude to­wards their for­mer colo­nial rulers, they have whole­heart­edly em­braced their re­li­gion and it is in the ubiq­ui­tous fi­es­tas that con­vent de­vo­tion and Hol­ly­wood spec­ta­cle dis­play a uniquely Filipino stamp.

Away from Manila, the most pop­u­lar fi­es­tas take place in May, when vil­lages and towns across the coun­try hon­our the Vir­gin Mary in the Flores de Mayo. This typ­i­cally takes place over a pe­riod of nine days. Fes­tiv­i­ties cul­mi­nate in the San­tacruzan, a his­tor­i­cal-re­li­gious pro­ces­sion to com­mem­o­rate Saint He­lena’s dis­cov­ery of the True Cross. It fea­tures nu­mer­ous bib­li­cal char­ac­ters, from Methuse­lah to Veron­ica. The fo­cus, though, is 20 or so teenaged girls dressed in white who sym­bol­ise var­i­ous as­pects of Mary as enu­mer­ated in her litany, such as the House of Gold, Morn­ing Star and Mir­ror of Jus­tice.

Ev­ery fi­esta serves sev­eral func­tions — so­cial, cul­tural, eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal (with vote-seek­ing con­gress­men much in ev­i­dence), as well as re­li­gious. Each girl is proudly, if stiffly, es­corted by a young man in his barong ta­ga­log (em­broi­dered shirt). It is clear from watch­ing the pa­rade that the Flores de Mayo is as much a beauty pageant cum mar­riage mar­ket as a sa­cred pro­ces­sion.

Young trans­ves­tites (a no­table Filipino sub-cul­ture) are of­ten present at the Flores de Mayo pro­ces­sion. At one fi­esta I at­tended, sev­eral were al­lowed to march in the pa­rade but were for­bid­den to en­ter the church. This was yet another in­stance of moral com­pro­mise in a state that is the only one in the

AFP world apart from the Vat­i­can to pro­hibit di­vorce but is oth­er­wise sur­pris­ingly per­mis­sive.

It is usu­ally pos­si­ble to com­bine a visit to a Flores de Mayo pro­ces­sion with one to the Fer­til­ity Rites at Obando, a small town about 20km from Manila. Nowhere is the sur­vival of pa­gan rit­u­als more marked than in this three-day fi­esta. It is os­ten­si­bly in hon­our of the town’s two pa­tron saints, St Paschal Bay­lon and St Clare, to­gether with the Vir­gin. But in prac­tice it owes more to the an­cient fer­til­ity dance, the Kasilon­awan.

Street hawk­ers sell peanut brit­tle, rice cakes, noo­dles and the pe­cu­liar Filipino del­i­ca­cies of adidas (fried chicken feet) and ba­lut (a half-formed duck em­bryo that re­put­edly is an aphro­disiac). Mean­while, child­less women dance ec­stat­i­cally in the streets — to St Paschal on May 17 if they want a boy and to St Clare on May 18 if they want a girl.

Dur­ing my visit, the par­ish pri­est, hav­ing whipped the crowd into a frenzy with ques­tions such as, ‘‘Are you keen to get mar­ried?’’, and, ‘‘Who wants to have a baby?’’, led them into the church and con­ducted mass.

At the end, he dis­creetly dis­ap­peared, to be re­placed by the bay­lan, a pa­gan high priest­ess. In full view of the con­gre­ga­tion, she rubbed the women’s stom­achs and men’s gen­i­tals.

As for Chris­tians through­out the world, the most sa­cred Filipino fes­ti­val is Easter. Ev­ery prov­ince cel­e­brates in its own way. Ar­guably the most in­ter­est­ing is the Mo­ri­ones Fes­ti­val, held on Marinduque.

This sleepy is­land is best known as the coun­try’s main ex­porter of but­ter­flies. For more than two cen­turies, the in­hab­i­tants have held a Holy Week fes­ti­val in hon­our of St Long­i­nus. He was the Ro­man cen­tu­rion whose spear pierced Je­sus’s side.

The fes­ti­val in­cludes a pas­sion play, a pro­ces­sion of flag­el­lants and, most bizarrely, a mu­si­cal war of the Mo­ri­ones, in which groups of heav­ily masked Filipinos wear­ing Ro­man hel­mets and breast­plates, along with flipflops, disco-dance in a sports field.

Un­doubt­edly the most cel­e­brated, as well as the most con­tro­ver­sial, Easter ob­ser­vances are the Good Fri­day cru­ci­fix­ions at San Fer­nando, Pam­panga. Par­tic­i­pants are nailed to


AP the cross in the heat for up to 15 min­utes. Most are from the locality but oth­ers come from across The Philip­pines and even abroad, such as the Bri­tish artist Sebastian Hors­ley.

The church of­fi­cially frowns on th­ese prac­tices. One bishop told me: ‘‘The men are lower-class, mainly ex­drug ad­dicts. They do some­thing for the Lord but only dur­ing the sea­son.’’

See­ing them strug­gling not to scream as the nails were driven into their hands and feet, I found it hard to avoid the sus­pi­cion that this was as much a viril­ity test as a pen­i­ten­tial rite.

As I stood among the many thou­sands of for­eign­ers who at­tend the cer­e­mony ev­ery year, I found my­self echo­ing the sen­ti­ments of my pro­tag­o­nist in The Breath of Night: ‘‘Was he alone in see­ing the irony in the West, hav­ing ex­ported its faith and then lost it, now claim­ing it back as a tourist spec­ta­cle?’’ Michael Arditti’s new novel is The Breath of Night (Ar­ca­dia Books, $18.99).


Filipino devo­tees at­tempt to touch the life-size statue of Christ in the an­nual Feast of the Black Nazarene THElargest an­nual fi­esta is the Feast of the Black Nazarene, which takes place in Manila on Jan­uary 9. The Black Nazarene is a 17th-cen­tury statue of Christ car­ry­ing the cross. Hav­ing sur­vived a fire aboard the galleon bring­ing it from Mex­ico (hence its colour), it has long been credited with mirac­u­lous pow­ers and ven­er­ated by the city.

The Black Nazarene’s pro­ces­sional route is lined by sev­eral mil­lion devo­tees, mak­ing it the great­est sin­gle wit­ness to faith in the con­tem­po­rary world, far dwarf­ing the an­nual Hajj to Mecca. The fren­zied jostling, as peo­ple try to reach the which the statue stands, re­sults in fre­quent in­juries and even deaths.

In re­cent years the re­li­gious au­thor­i­ties, des­per­ate to safe­guard their trea­sure, have com­mis­sioned repli­cas of var­i­ous body parts so that at any one time the statue in the street can never be fully au­then­tic.

The Santo Nino fes­ti­val in Jan­uary is another legacy of three cen­turies of Span­ish catholic rule.

There is some­thing deeply hum­bling in see­ing or­di­nary Filipinos, whose lives are scarred by hard­ship and op­pres­sion, iden­ti­fy­ing so per­son­ally with the tor­tured Christ.

A girl dressed as an an­gel dur­ing Easter rites in Manila

A fi­esta de­voted to Santo Nino takes place in Jan­uary

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