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Remembering My Holy Week Childhood

My Holy Week, as a child, began with the dressing of the “pasos” or “Santos.” A cousin of a grandmother kept the wooden torso of a saint. It was a headless body, with the lower half painted in light green, the arms outstretched but without the hands.

It took a long time for me to reconcile that torso that stood at the back of the door of Lola Epay’s home as the body of a female saint. What I do remember was us trooping to the old church to witness the transformation of a wood on Monday and Tuesday of the “Semana Santa.”

It would take years also for me to realize that some parts of this saint were in the other kin’s home. The other caretakers would all assemble in the church to put together this divine manifestation, a proto-Lego, into Mary Magdalene.

“She was the most beautiful woman in the times of Jesus that men fought and died for her,” a grandmother would tell and retell the story of this figure. We were looking up and seeing her dressed in gold and green, a gown in crushed velvet fit for a queen of an ancient period. She was bald before the long, golden tresses were placed on her head. Soon a golden tiara capped the curls that cascaded down her back like some wayward passions and desires reminiscent of what she was into.

By Thursday evening, her bright accoutrements were taken. A long, black cape covered her.

By Friday, she was one of the Women in black, mourning for the Crucified One who would die on Friday.

Thursdays and Fridays were days of taboos and proscriptions. We were not allowed anymore to read komiks and the rule got stronger each day. Silence became mandatory when Friday came. You got scolded if you laughed loudly because, depending on the time and day, God was suffering, about to die or was already dead.

My grandmothers sang in church. They sang those dolorous hymns that, were a bit of heavy rhythm was added, could well be the maudlin rhumba and tango music they danced to.

The singing was supposed to make people feel sad. The singers cried. My grandmothers wept as they sang the songs at the foot of the Cross.

I was already in grade school when a new Crucified Christ arrived in our church in San Fernando. This “Christ” had moveable parts. The arms could be made to drop weary from the sins of the world. The head could be magically twisted so that, at the strike of 3 in the afternoon, Christ would heave up and then let that head sag. The priest may not be convincing but that statue was true!

The first time it moved, people gasped and held on to their faith as if it were a license that could be revoked. I, who was then four or all of five, died for a few seconds not out of faith but out of fear.

I was back in that church a few years back. It was Good Friday. It was almost 3 in the afternoon when I slowly entered the Church. From afar, I could not recognize the man speaking the Seventh Last Word. Only his bright pendant swinging below the closed shirt could be seen. He was fabulously articulate. Inching my way inside, he shifted his topic from the Death of Christ to the political power of China. This meant that he could go on and on. But it was almost time. God should be near death. Without a warning, the old bells of the church started a mournful “repique,” or tolling. The speaker looked around and just had to stop his speech.

The “Sayos” or the women in black, who carried instruments like thorns and nails that link them to the Crucifixion, started to move up the altar. One of them, with the most flamboyant black cape, held the Christ that was taken off the Cross. The women were keening and softly wailing and praying, a Greek chorus seemingly tranquilized by the hot April afternoon.

I crept close to the last speaker and whispered, “Igso”(“Brother” or “Brethren”) He recognized me and muttered, “Demonyo, patay na gali an Diyos, wara ako sabihi.” (Devil! God was already dead and no one warned me.)

At the right side of the altar, the “Santo Entierro” or “the Entombed One” was surrounded by votive candles and glasses filled with coconut oil. Women were guarding their glasses of oil

A day before, the Parish Priest was scolding everyone about the glass of coconut oil they brought to the Church.

“What are you going to do with those oil?,” the priest asked. “Are you going to apply them to your body and fly at night?”

On the day we arrived in the home of my cousin, that was the question: Is it true there are Aswang in Ticao? My cousin who is a Doctor of Medicine denied the rumor. But here was the priest rebuking the women. Was he teasing them? If that was a banter, was that proper to do inside the Church, on Holy Week?

That night, Santa Maria Magdalena was the most beautiful of them all. Her earrings glistened even as the dark veil covered the sides of her lovely face. She was holding a vial. My grandmother said it contained the perfume she used years and years ago to anoint the Christ. But the tiny vial could also contain coconut oil, like the oil being sanctified by the women before the God who died.

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