Last fifteenth of May was held the famous Pahiyas festival of Quezon province, a feast in honor of San Isidro Labrador, the patron saint of farmers. Pahiyas is a unique and colorful celebration of the saint's day; in Lucban, Quezon, which has one of the most elaborate celebrations, whole streets are decorated with the harvest of the season; facades of houses are plastered with grapes, avocados, guavas and a whole array of other delectable fruits. Numerous folk art carvings line the avenues, carrying placards with witty one-liners on them. Of course, much of the celebration deals with that most famous of saints, San Isidro. On that day, he is dressed with sumptuous, hundred year old antique vestments, and is paraded throughout the town in an explosion of light, fervor, joy and color.
The word 'pahiyas' literally means 'decor' in English. The name is obviously derived from the fact that houses are literally decorated with food as a display of the prodigious harvest and also as an offering of thanksgiving to the saint. Who was St. Isidore, though? We knoe that he was born to very poor parents in Madrid in 1070. A farmer, he worked for much of his life for the wealthy landowner Juan de Vargas (the gentleman in the frock coat), and who would later make him bailiff of his entire estate. According to the story, Isidore as accustomed to hear Mass everyday before hieing off to work; one of his fellow farmers complained of this to de Vargas, who set about to rebuke the saint. Upon investigation, the hacendero found Isidore in church, as his fellow farmers said, while an angel was sloughing the land for him. Presumably, it was this incident that led to his promotion. Isidore was also known for his fond affection for animals; indeed, in the province of Bulacan on May 14th, for example, there is a procession of carabaos (Philippine water buffalo), who are dressed in colorful costumes; they are taken to the patio of the church, where they are made to kneel for their blessings.
Isidore's wife is herself a canonized saint, who is popularly known as Santa Maria Torribia de la Cabeza, because only her head is carried in processions. This is because the most popular relic attributed to her is a skull, which is believed to be her own. According to legend, she and Isidore had one son; the son would fall down the side of a hill early in life, so the couple begged the Virgin to save him. Miraculously, he survived, so the two of them devoted themselves to a life of sexual abstinence. Sadly, the boy still died in his childhood, despite their best efforts to save him. She outlived Isidore by a significant margin, too, dying some 45 years after him. During that time she is said to have dreamed of the Blessed Virgin every night, and would cross the river Jarama on her cloak (it apparently never got wet).
After the feast, the colorful decorations are taken down from the house, where they are then cooked and enjoyed by the whole community. It is obviously one of the most delicious feasts out there! San Isidro is also venerated in Talavera, Nueva Ecija, where, for the whole week leading to his feast day, novenas are said daily, Mass is offered several times each day, and there are also fairs, carnivals, processions and other entertainment events. Since Nueva Ecija is often referred to as the "Rice Granary of the Philippines", I am pretty sure it is a colorful spectacle as well.
As you may seem to notice, the religious festivals in the provinces are much more interesting than the ones in the city. There is a certain old world feel to it, a magical and enchanted viewpoint that seems to be missing from the elaborate parades of the more urbanized areas. In rural Philippines, the priest, in many ways, is still a 'padrino', in the sense that many would choose to follow him over the mayor or other city magistrates, and from this fact he enjoys much political clout. Before the harvest season, many farmers would bring him their seeds so he can give them his blessing for an abundant reaping. In some places, he is seen as an honorary politico even, perhaps a throwback to the days of the past.
The greatest satisfaction I derive from such festivals is how they show how the faith has nurtured the norms and traditions of the country. There is a remarkable catholicity to them, too; while the vestment of the San Isidro statue, for instance, is hundreds of years old, the figure of the kneeling Juan de Vargas has supposedly been replaced many times; indeed, its frock clashes with the Baroque splendor of the saint's robes. Additionally, their ability to convey and form tradition is something to be admired; it is a joy to see that the legendary aspect of Isidore's story has not been shied away from, which I find is the case in many cities.
Perhaps this is the greatest apologetic for the Communion of saints: how they are loved and cherished even in an age where many of them have been forgotten or relegated to the realm of superstition and historical vaguenesses. They are addressed in the same fashion as one addresses a grandfather or a grandmother and are always spoken of in the present. They 'watch' processions of other saints in their special balconies, and in the old days, even heard Mass (there is a tradition in one of the provinces where the priest says Mass with only the statues of the saints in the congregation-- theirs is said after this one).
As I've said before in this blog, true faith is always liable to be mistaken for mere superstition, because it penetrates the world of the mundane and grafts itself onto the seemingly worthless. The world, too, has felt an echo of the Divine Presence in the Incarnation, which is fulfilled in the glorious Resurrection of Our Blessed Lord and Divine Savior. Perhaps, in the end, this is what the Church needs most of all to rediscover: a sense of importance and the sacred in the mundane, and above all, a sense of joy. The first Christians, after all, were the rabble that followed Our Lord wherever He went, who probably sought Him more to avail of His miracles than any firm belief in His claims of divinity. Please do not think that I am advocating a 'dumbed down' religion here. What I am trying to say is that we must remember most of all what it is to bow to the Divine. That is what Tradition ultimately is: to kneel with our fathers and grandfathers in faith, without so much as knowing their names or seeing their faces.
As a bumper sticker once read, 'Anyone can bow before a king; it takes a gentleman to bow down before a pauper'. The world is the Father's gift to us, and His greatest gift is His own Son. That God suffered and died for wretched man is a enough a thought to make even the angels tremble in awe and the firmaments shake in their foundations. Why, then, can we not feel them? Are we too busy limiting God to a certain framework that we somehow forget His majesty and glory are beyond anything we can possibly conceive? Our Lord is definitely not a pauper, but at least we can honor His divine condescension the only way we can-- through joy and laughter and heaps and heaps of melodrama. So kiss that Virgin Mary statue right now and prostrate yourself before St. John the Baptist's severed head (complete with tongue lolling!); it really won't hurt to do so.