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Culture of Celebrating

One trait that is so endearing among Filipinos, especially Bicolanos, is the culture of celebrating. It’s the love for merriment that is always present in our way of gathering – like family or community- even amid disagreements and crises. Even about the dead, people are wont to celebrate.

To celebrate is probably too happy of a word. But it is about extending an invitation to join a gathering, including a death anniversary commemoration. Last January 29 was the babang luksa - literally “lowering of mourning” - since the death last year of the founder of the Volunteers Against Crime (VACC). On the following day, his family sent out an online poster inviting close friends, including a good number of his batchmates from the East Coast in the US, to “celebrate the life of Dante Jimenez” with a Mass and a program. For people outside of Dante’s family and those unknown to him, it may just be a somber date, a rite of remembering someone who left this world. If it were not a pandemic, I am sure the occasion would be an opportunity for the Mariners’ Culinary school chefs and students to showcase their gastronomic delights and taste of winery and barista to the guests. After all, the Mariners Training Hotel was one of his pet projects as president of the maritime school.

So, with most gatherings now online, who would know what’s hidden behind the often-blurry virtual zoom background or photo onscreen? Was everybody listening, anybody smiling, in tears, or maybe was just there with a frame in front of us, just one of the many who registered online? Who would know? But the organizers of the online event set the tone well ahead – it was going to be a program of the celebration of life, not only of Dante. For, the host announced a new life was born on the first death anniversary. Dante’s daughter gave birth to his first apo – a grandchild long-wished and awaited for till he passed away at 68.

The long stream of story sharing that day brought buckets of tears, but each story did not elicit grief. I knew because I too felt a sign of joy at every new detail I heard from bits of anecdotes from a long-time driver, a security detail, a batchmate, and, would you believe, a favorite high school teacher who I think was the light of the day. Mrs. Sorra must be in her 80s now. Still, her memory was sharp, describing Dante so vividly as a “maliit, payat at iyakin .. na nakaupo sa harapan ko” adding, “I never thought he would be a street parliamentarian, very brave leading VACC in the frontlines of the streets.” How can one not elicit a smile – mine was a laugh, a peal of laughter at that bit of reminiscing – of Dante described by his teacher who survived him by years! It was a death anniversary transformed into a celebration of life. That felt good.

Then a message on the chat board appeared. It came from the former regional director of the Department of Tourism, Benjamin Santiago, who happily reported about the progress of some infra projects in Bicol --the Philippine National Railways (PNR), the Bicol international airport and the physical improvement of the regional DOT building in Legazpi City, Albay which Dante, Benjamin said, so vigorously pushed in his brief stint as Bicol Affairs consultant. It was as if Dante was alive, receiving an updated report from a government colleague. Do we not have this mistaken notion that we stop knowing our siblings after each has gone off to marry and have one’s own family?

I am always amazed at this almost mystical capacity of most Filipinos to transform themselves from being sad, grieving, and crying then moving towards an emotion of smiling, laughing, and celebrating to feel one with the other at one moment. Just after the Christmas holidays, our community witnessed a three-day wake for a neighbor who died of a heart attack. Thank God it was not covid, so the barangay relaxed slightly by allowing the public to the wake along the sidewalk. Inside home, there was the loud crying of grieving family members, funeral coffin, flower wreaths lighted up. One loud wallowing cry yet outside, friends sat around a few tables with a couple of drinks and karaoke singing of the “Impossible Dream” into the wee hours of the morning that could be heard up to the street end. I did not feel disturbed at all. Nor did anyone from the neighborhood, I am sure. I loved the sounds that came forth from the mix of crying and karaoke singing, a few laughter there and giggling from some women around. It was to be a good Pandemic break. Couldn’t we make these times an exception to deviate a bit from the ordinary?

I have long learned the value of respecting the different beliefs of people. Respecting other cultures helps unite, fortify, consolidate and deepen one’s relationship. However, a single misstep can also be hurting. I remember my first encounter with a Muslim family sometime in 1988 who lost a son. I was with a group of researchers who sympathized with the parents who were employees of Mindanao State University in Marawi. Islamic mourning traditions give high value to establishing connections. But being a researcher had the better of me – I thought by asking how much pain the family was in, feeling their loss was an excellent way to connect and sympathize. My Muslim friend gently reminded me to minimize asking about the pain and loss. Instead, talk about all the positive things the deceased accomplished in their lives. Spending time with them and speaking positively and celebrating the deceased’s life, or just staying quiet, is already an act of kindness during the period of mourning. There is no need to weep with them!

It was an entirely different experience with the family of one of my close Chinese friends in college who lost their father. I thoroughly enjoyed watching how the siblings helped prepare what they call “Alay” of foods, mostly the favorite of their departed Dad. Up to now, dressing up the table made them happy, only because they were doing it for him as if he was still alive.

No matter the differences, challenges, and adversities we may be in, especially at this time of the Pandemic, this wonderful culture of celebrating – of reminiscence and merriment -- is a significant part of life, impossible to separate from any Filipino event. Moreover, if I may add, this happy culture finds commonality with other nationalities around the world whose connection with life and nature remains deep as a unifying custom woven in one’s national identity. Let us continue celebrating by constantly reconnecting with nature and life.

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