Fiesta fever and fiesta fervor

Big fiesta right now in Naga City, the heart of the Bicol Region (south eastern part of Luzon Island), Philippines, old home of my youth. It’s the week-long feast of Mary, mother of Jesus, the revered Lady of Penafrancia, object of much adulation and fervor among the Catholics. I can imagine the flurry of activities. I can imagine the vibrant multitudes. I can imagine the cathedral and shrine tightly packed with devotees from far and near. I can imagine the abundance of food prepared in every home. I can imagine the joy in every home where college-age children and relatives come back to celebrate.

While the festivities ride on deep religious devotion that evokes prayer and attendance at masses, the atmosphere is electrified with robust events such as the “Traslacion”, the transfer of the image from the Penafrancia shrine to the Naga Cathedral the week before, and the fluvial procession the Saturday after, for the return of the Lady back to its permanent shrine. Those two major events book end all the celebrations and activities. The Penafrancia fiesta is embedded in the culture and hearts of  Catholics in the Bicol Region.

[“Naga Smiles to the World” Traslacion and Fluvial Procession photos]

I have seen pictures of the pilgrimage of millions of devotees accompanying the transfer, aggressive and fervent crowds aiming to be close to the vehicle that carries the image, many pushing or forcing their way to get a touch of the Virgin’s shroud, or the very least, the vehicle where she stands, in hopes of special favors for health, wellbeing or relationships.

I do remember the fiesta with clarity. Every year, the crowds seemed to grow, and the pictures this year show that the throngs of devotees have certainly grown multifold. From the videos, you can hear shouts of “Viva la Virgen, Viva!” The multitudes’ voices were thunderous and relentless. How easy it would be for anyone witnessing the whole happening to get caught up in the hype and fervor.

There was some nostalgia, I admit, as I watched the videos that brought me back to memory lane. I remember the days of preparation before the fiesta. Like every home in the city, mine was a cataclysm of activities – cleaning, planning, polishing silverware, marketing, washing curtains, cooking, and that’s not to mention the involvement in school activities in anticipation of the fiesta. I recall Mama busily preparing her chemistry solutions and show items for the annual exhibit at the college. I was constantly practicing with the marching battalion of my school’s women’s auxiliary corps as its corps commander. That corps was the pride of the school, having won the best and most elegant marching unit in the regional parade practically every year.

At home, cooking mania the day before was the central focus. I remember being assigned to beat 12 eggs for at least 40 minutes to make a finely textured chiffon cake called “markasotes”. That was my auntie’s priced recipe and specialty. I suspected frequent visitors came for her markasotes. But of course, they also came for Mama’s delicious gelatin speckled with pieces of fruits. It was a sign of fiesta when the warm gelatin mixture was poured in bowls and naturally cooled on our dining room’s wide window pane. There was always the delicious macaroni chicken salad that quickly left the serving platters. Papa, as usual, would busy himself in the backyard, prepping up his vegetable plants and clearing the soil of weeds.

I shall always remember my embarrassment one day before the fiesta. A young suitor climbed our veranda stairs to find me standing on a stool, struggling with pulling a freshly washed curtain through a long rod and almost tipping myself over when I caught sight of him watching me. I was very shy then, thus the awkward and vilifying moment.

The best memory of all was the fluvial procession on the last day of the fiesta week. Our own veranda was always a venue for watching. Relatives and friends flocked to our home especially on that Saturday of the procession on the Bicol river. Our home was close to the river bank, and fronting the bank was Papa’s lush vegetable garden. Onlookers gingerly walked around his plants to get to the river side. People lined the river banks, cheering thousands of boatmen and devotees crowded around and on the barge bearing the Lady of Penafrancia image, on the trek back to its permanent home in the Penafrancia shrine. From spectators, there was a heavy hush as shouts of Viva from the river pierced the air. For some mysterious reason, sacred air  hovered in the atmosphere, almost like a thick cloud of awe that covered the entire length of the fluvial procession. Catholic or not, this feeling that accompanied the mysticism was pervasive.

As I look back over the years when I was in the midst of the fiesta celebrations, I wonder with awe how a loving God chose a beautiful young maiden to be the earthly mother of His only begotten son, Jesus reincarnated as man, both human and divine. I like to think that all the honor to Mary is in essence honoring and praising God the Father, who gave His son to humanity, that all might be saved.  And Mary was the Father’s choice to bear His son that He shares with us all. Viva!

This is fiesta week in Naga where great multitudes gather for the Penafrancia fiesta, despite storm Mungkhut predicted to be one of the strongest to hit Luzon this year. We pray for protection for all.

[Prayers, too, for protection for all affected by Florence in the Carolinas, US.]

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