Communion of saints: Filipinos' holiday celebrations surprise, inspire

Graves are elaborately decorated for All Saints' Day celebrations in the Philippines (GSR photo / Joyce Meyer)

I arrived in Manila, the Philippines, at midnight, changed money and went to search for a hotel. What a surprise when I walked into the lobby and found near the front door a beautiful Christmas tree, fully decorated!

It was a bit confusing and I had to think, "What month is it?" Yes, October.

When I asked the clerk about the tree, she told me that in the Philippines, Christmas is celebrated throughout the "ber" months! The what, I asked? She smiled and said: "September, October, November and December." This was only the first of many surprises, even though this was my third trip to the Philippines.

I had assumed from previous visits that everyone spoke English and I often wondered why at my parish in the Los Angeles area, where the congregation is about a third Filipino, we sang in Tagalog occasionally. This time, I understood that even though English is taught in school in the Philippines, it is still a second or third language and most Filipinos are not fluent speakers, particularly taxi drivers. Each region of the country has its own language, much preferred to speaking in English.

Thankfully, my ignorance did not inhibit my work when I flew to Cebu, because my Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary sisters took pity and rescued me. They helped me make contacts and get around the area. I never would have managed on my own to get to some of the complicated places where I found sisters working.

I had come to the Philippines to attend the International Union of Superiors General Constellation Delegates meeting on "Building Community in an Intercultural World," so it was a perfect beginning for me to realize how often I make assumptions and am surprised at Catholic practices different from those familiar to me and which I thought were common.

Besides Christmas, celebrated for nearly five months, even Advent, which I had thought of as a traditional Catholic liturgical season that is observed the same way everywhere, in fact, is not. In the Philippines, families participate instead in nine days of prayer known as the "Dawn" novena, or "Misa de Gallo", a ritual that dates from Spanish colonization. Everyone — children, fathers, mothers and the extended family — rises to attend Mass at 4 a.m. from Dec. 15 to 24. This extended time of prayer is a festival that includes celebratory food after each Mass. Vendors wait outside to serve specialty breakfasts before everyone disperses to school or work.

All the months, from September through December, are festive, even All Souls' Day — Nov. 2 — which is in our Western culture a solemn time to remember our deceased loved ones. I was glad to join in this new experience.

I began to learn about it when planning my trip to find stories about sisters' ministries in the Philippines. I was puzzled that sisters would not be available the week I would arrive because they would be with their families for All Saints' Day celebrations. This practice includes a three-day national holiday, Undas: Oct. 30, 31 and Nov. 1. 

Some tombs are elaborate and as big as small houses (GSR photo / Joyce Meyer)

It seemed like the whole country was on the move to celebrate. For many families, the festivities start on Oct. 30, when some members gather in their particular cemeteries to prepare for the travelers coming from afar. These activities are accompanied by loud music, singing, food and drink.

The first to arrive clean the sites and decorate the burial places with flowers and candles. Big tents are rented to cover the graves to shelter family members who may even stay at the cemetery overnight for the entire holiday. Celebrations continue on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 as family members gradually gather.

I had never heard of such a practice. In the U.S., Nov. 1 — All Saints' Day — is reserved for saints who do not have special days assigned to them, but in the Philippines all deceased are celebrated as saints. All Souls' Day in our tradition is a somber day to pray for those deceased, so I was very curious and I admit, a bit skeptical when I heard what would happen during these days.

My Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary sisters took me to visit their plot at a local cemetery on the Oct. 29, the Sunday before the festivities, to avoid the huge crowds. To their dismay, the plot had nearly disappeared as very large tombs had been erected nearby, leaking into the sisters' space. I wondered how they would have enough space to bury anyone in the tiny spot.

As we walked through the cemetery, vendors were already setting up their kiosks. Local fast food chain Jollibee had a prominent place, as it is a favorite among families.

Vendors sell toys for recreation in the cemeteries (GSR photo / Joyce Meyer)

Luckily, I received an invitation from the Religious of Mary Immaculate to accompany them to a friend's family celebration on Nov. 1. I was excited, and even though it had been raining all morning and the cemetery was very muddy, by evening the weather had cleared. We were able to tour the cemetery grounds to view some of the most extravagant and beautiful tombs I have ever seen.

Some were large shrines as big as small houses. Many were made of marble, decorated with precious metals and gems, belonging primarily to wealthy Filipino and Chinese families. All were lavishly decorated with flowers and candles. There was also a simpler Chinese section with cabinet-like walls of drawers into which bodies are placed.

As we walked throughout the cemetery, families were celebrating with prayer, picnics and music. Children were playing and chasing each other about. Some families leave food on the tombs to honor the dead, similar to the practice in Mexico, another country influenced by Spanish culture.

The sisters and I found our way back to their friend's plot through the long lines of cars trying to find parking. These long lines continued arriving into the night, even as we were leaving.

At Mass, the priest read the list of names of this family — about four pages, reminding us all that these members were now with God and that we were celebrating them as saints, too. It was a lovely liturgy with sisters playing guitar music and singing.

After Mass, we enjoyed a wonderful picnic of favorite Filipino foods, particularly, lechon, a suckling pig gutted, but with head and tail intact, then filled with herbs and roasted over a spit. We also had traditional noodles, vegetables and of course pounds of rice. Dessert was a special sticky rice delicacy. 

Roasted pig is served at a birthday party the author attended; the meal is common at celebrations. (GSR photo / Joyce Meyer)

As I ate and watched the families around us engaged in this same ritual of prayer and celebration, my skepticism and curiosity melted away. I was inspired by the Filipinos' sense of their deceased relatives being truly present with them. They practice the Communion of saints in a practical way.

I thought how much my mother would have loved it — having the family all together. I experienced a kind of intercultural transformation as I engaged in and reflected on these new ways of thinking about and observing feasts that I have so taken for granted as being so somber.

[Joyce Meyer is a member of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and is GSR's liaison to women religious outside of the United States.]