An eclectic tradition in Philippine culture – All Souls Day on November 1st. While communities in the US celebrate Halloween, in the Philippines Nov. 1st is the day of the dead. Cemeteries buzz with lively activities hinged on remembering loved ones who have passed. Light bulbs, candles, flowers liven up the place. Tombs and grave stones whitewashed for the annual commemoration become the center of gatherings of family, kins and friends. Think about a fair – that’s the atmosphere that permeates on the grounds. No spookiness at all, but a pervading impression and feeling of vitality. The irony is, what goes on at the cemetery on Nov. 1st is not like a memorialization of death, but a celebration of life.
Visitors roam about the cemetery grounds looking for friends come home to pay respect to their beloved dead. People stroll about the cemetery grounds seeking folks they hadn’t seen in quite a while, or just checking out how fancily some tombs are dolled up, or maybe, to get invited to partake of drinks and food. Strong aroma of food brought by families permeates, and who wouldn’t want to get invited! Happy greetings and boisterous conversation accent the air. Some even bring stereos blaring loud music enough to make one think of a shindig. You would wonder if the dead were floating among the living, shimmying it up and feasting with the living. Who knows!
But the marvel of it all is that with all the bustle and wingding hover a sacredness and a solemnity adjunct to honoring the dead. Harmonized with sounds of joviality are resonant mumblings of prayers and petition, backdropped by heavy wafts of incense and candle scent. The focal point of the observance is honoring the dead and resurfacing fond thoughts of loving times with them when they were still around. The whole celebration lifts the hope and the comfort that the beloved dead are resting in the Lord’s perfect peace.
On the lighter side, I hold funny memories of All Souls Day during my youth. I heard that mischief often breaks out in the neighborhood in the evening of the 1st. In the province, it was common for homes to maintain a poultry or have chickens roaming about in the backyard. Papa had a small fenced area underneath our kitchen. I recall listening with great amusement to hens clucking or roosters bellowing cock-a-doodle-doos below the house. I particularly enjoyed watching little yellow chicks scampering about like in a round-about catch-me game. Before leaving for the cemetery, Auntie would instruct the household help to count the chickens and count them again upon arriving home. The rumored customary mischief in the neighborhood was that “gobblers and goblins” would go around stealing chickens. I don’t think we lost any – great relief to Pa, Ma, Auntie and chicken watchers in the family.
In my teenage and young adult years, going to the cemetery on Nov. 1st meant opportunity to see and meet friends and acquaintances. Coming from a girls’ convent school, it was not often for female students to mingle with boys in social events. Thus, this normal teenage girl was thrilled to see the “secret crush” walk by again and again and again, as if he, too, had a secret crush and just wanted to be seen. I really didn’t know, because the secret stayed a secret. I remember my older sister’s young suitor from Manila come to the cemetery, searched for her, and upon finding her, looked like he struck gold – at the cemetery! He had a long flashy car that attracted many young females. Of course, it was sheer and ticklish delight when he offered to drive us home from the cemetery in his yellow Impala.
I still imagine the sweet smell of the thick guinataan (dessert of mixed slices of taro roots, banana, jackfruit, glutinous rounded small doughs cooked in sugared coconut milk). As I write this, I can savor the laing in my palate, a favorite Bicol delicacy of gabi (taro) leaves with pepper simmered long in thick coconut milk. With the laing came abundant steamed rice. There were other dishes, but I always focused on those three. Seated on the grass in front of our loved one’s tomb, we would happily partake in the highlight of the celebration at the cemetery – eating. Other families did the same. After all, it was a party, and center of parties is always food.
As I write this blog on Nov. 1st, I prayerfully and lovingly remember my husband, Papa, Mama, Papang, Mamang and other loved ones gone beyond — and rejoice in the thought that they may be celebrating with the saints and angels before the Lord … perhaps with music, perhaps with food …. not just with my favorite guinataan and laing … but who knows, perhaps with those, too.