Friday, January 21, 2011

Brief Notes on a Fiesta

I attended the Fiesta of the Santo Nino in my father's province for the first time in years this past Sunday. Not a lot has changed, but then again, it may also be the case that I just did not pay enough attention to the rites in the past. Unfortunately we had missed the religious procession a week before; like many processions held in honor of the saints in the Philippines, the Santo Nino de Batangan, as the Nino of Batangas is officially called ("Batangan" meaning a place where timber was floated before being collected) was feasted with an elaborate, day-long, water-borne procession. This, of course, involved the use of a boat, which traced the "pilgrimage" of the image from the wharfs right to its present location today.

The Nino is black; some say he, like the Nazareno of Quiapo, was burned in a shipwreck; others claim the fire was caused by slave traders who raided the shores of Batangas then. I confess to being unfamiliar with the whole narrative, but suffice to say, the Nino came to Batangas by the sea. Others have said that it came to Batangas via Cebu, where Catholicism had its roots in the Philippines, and where the Nino has been venerated for more than four hundred years, since Magellan brought the image to its shores, and where it was subsequently worshipped as the highest and most powerful god of the Cebuano pantheon. When we got to the basilica to hear Mass, the image was placed just outside the adoration chapel, where a queue of people had lined up in order to venerate it. The Nino was clothed in a cape of beaten silver; when we arrived, it seemed as if it had just been placed outside, as the line numbered fewer than fifty then. Veneration in the Philippine context, of course, involves a plethora of actions that some might call 'touchy feely': the Nino was smothered by many a grubby hand, molested, even. Many brought handkerchiefs and towelettes to wipe the face and hands of the Child, in the hopes that some of its grasya and birtud would rub off on the cloths. These cloths are then rubbed on one's body, conferring its blessedness on the devotee.

The Mass was celebrated by H.E. Cardinal Rosales of Manila. As truly befits the occasion, the church was packed to the rafters; I estimated maybe ~800 people capable of fitting in the pews. But the side naves were fully packed, too, considering that it was already the third (?) Mass of the day (in many places in the Philippines, Masses usually begin at the crack of dawn, at 4.30 to 5am). The Mass itself was not very long, 80 minutes tops; liturgically, it was a run of the mill, insouciantly reverent pontifical Novus Ordo. Peculiar to me was the music; the Kyrie, Gloria, and Sanctus were all in Latin interspersed with Tagalog, but elegantly sung. Surprisingly there were ladies in the altar party, but all of these were dressed in white with skirts that extended past the knee, and all wore veils. Similarly, the usherettes all wore veils, and there was, in fact, a preponderance of old ladies wearing them. There was one old lady who knelt at the communion rail for the duration of the Mass, who prayed with her arms extended, like the cross.

Like any fiesta in the Philippines, the noise and pollution were overwhelming; as we were walking home to my grandfather's house, what would normally have been a ten minute walk more than doubled in length, due to the sheer number of vendors that crowded the street. Interestingly, a great number of these vendors were Muslims. They offered cheap knock-offs of Italian leather goods (I saw a bag marked "Poochie" [Pucci] and another marked "Frada"), pens that lit up, peanuts, pirated DVDs, karaoke machines, and mass produced estampitas (holy cards) and statues of the Child Jesus, the Holy Family, the Sacred Heart, and many others. Horror of horrors, I even saw a couple of laughing Christs on display.

We finally got home at 11.30; we had stopped by, briefly, at a covered court where a band was practicing (they were kids who were probably not much older than seven). They played a couple of odd ditties, novelty songs, and I think, one religious song, although I did not recognize it. There was a huge spread on the table in my grandfather's house, as per custom in fiestas here. The menu was idiosyncratic: there was Mexican, Chinese, American, and Filipino finger food all mashed together in one syncretic whole. Meanwhile, our family's image of the Nino, with its ivory face and purple robe, was put on a pedestal in the living room. Beside it were flowers, although if these were real or plastic, I was not able to observe.

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