In the Philippines Halloween-as we celebrate it in the USA-does not exist. In some of the major cities or more modernized establishments, you might find fake spider webs and skeletons covering the walls and a party full of people dressed as zombies and politicians. But aside from the American influences, Halloween is not a thing here. Instead there is All Saints Day, known in Filipino as ‘Araw ng mga Patay’ which translates to ‘Day of the Dead’. In fact the Day of the Dead is really a two day national holiday, so I just experienced my first four-day-weekend in the Philippines!
On November 1st, the actual day of celebrations, people all over the country head to cemeteries to honor the dead. All Saints Day is a Roman Catholic holiday that originated to honor all the saints that did not get their own holidays. The tradition of remembering the saints spread to remembering all who have passed, and All Souls Day was given it’s own holiday on November 2nd (though it is celebrated on November 1st).
Family members in my household went to the cemetery throughout the day to remember their parents, grandparents, other family and friends who have passed away. I went at 3:30pm with my host nanay, a couple of her children and a handful of the grandchildren. When we pulled up to the cemetery there were stalls lining the street selling food, flowers, and candles. Children were wearing their Sunday best and throngs of people were working their way between the tombs and mausoleums. I could hear the chorus of prayer coming from the makeshift Mass tent in a clearing down the way and people were softly ushering ‘kandila’ (candles) for prayer. With two bouquets of flowers in my hand, I followed my nanay to her husband’s grave, where the grandchildren spread out chairs and lined the tomb with the flowers. A tarpaulin was draped over the front of the tomb and prayer candles were lit and affixed to the ground in front. Nanay went to join the mass while I waited with the family around the tomb.
I wandered around the cemetery for a while, it was full of families surrounding the graves of their dead loved ones. An altar boy was walking around splashing holy water on each of the graves, turning carefully with every step to make sure he didn’t miss one. There was a somber feeling to the afternoon, yet it didn’t feel like a sad day. The Day of the Dead is a celebration of the lives’ these people had. Some families bring food and music and sit around with their deceased as if they were still alive. It’s not unusual to host a big feast for lunch or dinner. Prayers are said, memories are shared, and life continues alongside the dead.
Before nanay returned, a storm cloud rolled into the cemetery and we watched with trepidation as to whether it would release itself upon us. A cold wind shuddered the branches of the high trees above us and a few fat drops marked the cement of the graves. The storm hit hard and fast; we huddled under the awning of the neighboring mausoleum and it somehow felt appropriate. It was as if Shakespeare himself had written the scene, where the weather befits the mood.
The storm turned into a drizzle just before mass was over and we resituated ourselves around tatay’s grave just as nanay reappeared. The prayer candles were relit and the youngest grandchild led the family in a chorus of prayer and Hail Mary’s.
When our service was over, nanay lit some candles at the neighboring mausoleum, paying respect to friends of the family. We worked our way through the maze of tombs and graves in the quiet of dusk. On the way out, I passed a lone woman sat next to the grave of her loved one; candles were lit and she was playing a love song on her phone. I felt a catch in my throat and my heart went out to her.
I’m not a religious person but I was deeply moved by the Day of the Dead. There was a beautiful essence to the day, despite it’s dark tones. I found myself thinking of my grandparents and the few emotional visits I’ve had to their graves. I simultaneously wished that I had spent more time with them as I was older and also felt so incredibly lucky to have them in my life as long as I did. I cannot make it to their graves in Israel every year, but I can find my own way of celebrating their life more often. Days of honoring the dead exist in Judaism, too. Perhaps all I needed was some perspective from the other side of the world, in a culture unlike any I’ve experienced before, to make me appreciate a bit more of my own.
Happy November, everyone,