Undas is a Filipino fiesta

Photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler

By Elfren S. Cruz/The Philippine Star – For Filipino Catholics, the proper day to visit the graves of their deceased loved ones is actually on Nov. 2 which is All Souls’ Day. This is supposed to be a day of mourning for the dead. There should be no parties or merrymaking on that day.

On Nov. 1, All Saints’ Day, the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of All Saints’ Day. In the Philippines the term for this day is Undas. There are different stories of the origin of this Tagalog word. The story I like best is that the word undas is derived from the Spanish word honra meaning respect. In this context, the word refers to “respect for the dead.”

Certain aspects of celebrating these two days have changed. However, the core celebration has remained the same. In the October-November 1941 issue of the Cenacle Missionary, there was an article on how this Filipino custom was celebrated.

“An old Christian custom bids us to visit the graves of our dead on All Souls’ Day or even already on the afternoon of All Saints’ Day. In Manila, this day is celebrated, yes even very solemnly, with oriental gaiety and colorful bustle seemingly quite irreverent and improper to occidental minds. On All Saints’ Day special traffic regulations have to be put in force on the streets and lanes leading to the cemeteries.

Early in the afternoon the migration to the cemeteries already begins, but the main traffic sets in the evening after sunset, and continues throughout the entire night. The Filipinos are holding their vigil of the dead. “To be sure, they do not pray the ecclesiastical nocturnes. They provide themselves with food and drink, with cakes and cookies and ice cream, and thus by flickering candlelight, they watch the whole night at the graves of their beloved dead.”

Today, because of the terrible traffic situation, visitors to cemeteries can be seen going to cemeteries days before undas. While many still bring food, the presence of fast food kiosks in cemeteries have become the principal source of food. Finally, candles, along with flowers, mainly serve as decorations for graves and not for lighting.

The durability of this tradition can be attributed to the fact that undas is both a religious and cultural tradition for Filipinos. In his book “Culture and Community in the Philippine Fiesta and Other Celebrations,” Florentino H. Hornedo wrote that celebrations and specialty fiestas endure in this country because “…it is rooted in the communitarian and expressive instincts of human nature…it is a durable venue for Filipino cultures and expressions…and is a symbol of Filipino sense of community.”

Hornedo sees Philippine fiestas as a cultural anchor helping the Filipinos define their national character: “It is to this small community, that is annually recreated by the fiesta that he goes home to renew his identity and sense of belonging – belonging to a home and familial village.”

This seems to be the best explanation why the Filipino goes home every Christmas and Holy Week. The memory of ways of celebrating Catholic feasts is evidence that there is a distinct Filipino culture that serves to bond us all together as one people.

No matter in what corner of the world we may be, we remain truly Filipino.


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