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Forgotten Taboos



“Mamulaan” was a word that I would often hear from my grandmother, Emilia, when I was growing up in San Fernando, Ticao Island. Up to now, I still could not figure out the etymology of the word but its meaning has remained clear to me even now. It was a warning - almost a threat - that if you did something to the extreme on the first day of the New Year, you would end up doing that act over and over again or being in that state repeatedly throughout the year.


What are these actions or conditions that should be avoided on the first day of the year? Grandmother especially and also mothers, perhaps heeding their mothers (who happened to be your grandmas) were strict about waking up early on January 1. In the standard of provincial towns, early meant before 7 in the morning. Six in the morning was ideal, not even exceptional. My father had a poetic version of what was the good time to wake up - when the dew was still on the leaf or flowers. To be up when everything had dried up or evaporated into the air was laziness.


How did “mula” operate with regard to waking up early? If you woke up early, it meant the rest of the year you would be doing the same. You would develop a good habit; you would be disciplined. What was the opposite? If you stayed well beyond past 7 and into 8 am (it was unimaginable for young boys and girls to be asleep till 9, not even if there were no classes), it was a foreboding of a bad habit, a slow life, a lazy predisposition. You were no good. You were a burden to the household.


And so on that day, the very first day, everybody woke up fast and early. There was power in that attitude, a magic in the desire to rise up and shine.


There were more areas for taboo and these were with concerns that were more abstract in its meaning. One was the domain of work or labor. While industry, then and now, are valued and viewed as positive factors in human societies, it was looked down upon during the New Year of yore. Work, labor and other strenuous activities fell under the rituals of avoidance - people in the homes should avoid going to the kitchen. The fire should be made to rest. Where busy movements could bring about chaos and noise, the new day demanded an observance of silence to allow the new season to enter our lives softly and quietly.


It was a New Year and it was bringing to our lives a new universe. And that universe was barely starting to listen to our wishes and dreams. Our New Year’s Resolutions.


In so many ways, the resolutions we wrote and promised to keep had a link to the taboos that needed to be observed. We were promising to do things properly and observe new practices more religiously. All these quests necessitated that there were acts that should be avoided and those that should be upheld.


How did our grandparents cope with these practices?


As with any rites and ceremonials, there were preparations - some tedious, others a matter of observance and system.


With regard to the kitchen, the household help together with the older male members of society made sure there were enough woods and charcoal so that basic processes, like heating the water (this was allowed) could be done. The mothers and aunts had to stock up on the basics, like gas, cooking oil, sugar, coffee, milk, etc. One very important utility in the kitchen that was often neglected was the match or posporo. Households were not expected to run out of any of these items. Oh No! That was horrible. No one, no one at all should go out of the store to purchase any of these basic ingredients or condiments.


On the first day of the year, no one should release a centavo from anyone’s wallet or hankie! To do so would signal a mamumulaan - one person or more in the household would find himself or herself releasing an undue amount of cash to some unusual activities. It would be as if she was being forced by some mysterious circumstances to open her wallet and take out coins for some irrelevant purchases.


It was because he or she broke a taboo.


My grandmother Emilia is long gone. Mama is gone. There are no more old people around me. I have become the oldest member of our household and these taboos I talked about have become merely amusing tales.


The world has also changed. Even the days and nights of the world have shifted. The 24-7 has become normal. No one can imagine a kitchen that is not in use. If it is not a site of cooking, maybe because the household has bought all the foods from outside, including the mixed salad. There is no magic at midnight because people still work during that time. There are people who see midnight as the time for coffee break. Banished are the witching hours because even the witches have joined our workforce of depressed, isolated individuals. But one thing is good to know - that there is a universe that is reborn again when the clock strikes 12 on December 31, 2023.


Happy New Year to Everyone!

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