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The Festive Melancholy of my Lent

There were three main events in my childhood: Christmas, which was joyous; Lent, marked by a dolorous atmosphere and, in between these two seasons, the many fiestas that abound around me.

Lent or its shorter moments in the Semana Santa stood out particularly because our grandparents’ home then was at the back of the old church. We were like backstage to the calendrical happenings in the church. And then there were my grandmothers and grand-aunts who, it seemed to me then, saw to it that they became part of the extravaganza built around the death of a God. As if that was not enough, uncles and grand-uncles completed the Greek-Roman chorus to the tragedy that helped unfold on Good Friday.

They sang those dolorous songs that were in Spanish and Latin.

Where did they learn to sing those long, curlicues of notes? How did they develop vocal styling that was somehow akin to the Italian bel canto? And did they really believe in the lyrics of those grand, monumental music? Why did the town tenor or baritone (his vocal range changed depending on whether he had too much alcohol the previous night) cry when he belted “Ya Murio mi redentor” (My redeemer has died)? Was he moved by the lyrics or was the atmosphere just too somber or dark not to be in that dramatic mode?

But why question this if the word “murio” has already been transformed into “muryo,” a bravely interchangeable noun and verb for “sober and somber” and “to be sad or glum-faced,” respectively.

The question about faith is a question of languages.

The fact is music formed a greater part of my memories of this holiest of weeks. And when we talk of music, I include all notions of sound or the lack of it.

In our home, Good Friday was a quiet day. No one then was allowed to read funny materials like the komiks. We were kids but our grandmother, Emilia, made sure we observed one of these taboos. We were supposed to be calm and not pesky. There was less playtime for all of us. We began to wonder what was happening.

I began to wonder about those days.

To create the festival, and the contrast that occurs during its long observation, one realizes the silence and the thunder and lightning that were created around the Semana Santa.

In my town, San Fernando in Ticao Island, Masbate, you could see the people dressed in the loveliest and brightest of colors from Monday till Maundy Thursday. You’d see this more in the inhabitants of the distant barrios and those from mountain villages. For the latter, the townspeople believed it was their way of showing off whatever little wealth they had accumulated. To dress up and not be the unshod and unwashed in those occasions was part of their belief. Besides, they were honoring the Redeemer whose death preceded by His sufferings was not only being dramatized but actually happening soon.

The pasos or icons for the processions followed this tradition. The male statues dressed to stand for the greatest story ever told were limited to green and brown swaths, and yet resplendent because the rarest or oldest satin and silk formed the costumes for them. You needed to know their iconography - how they looked and were made to look - if you wanted to easily identify the holy figures through which you would want to funnel your prayers. The beard, the animal beside them or which they were holding, the pen, the book, the key, the bottle – all these matter.

The female pasos had more options: blues in all aspects of the color, purple in even more royal hues, all the shades of red and all the patina of gold and silver. Mary Magdalene, Martha, Salome, and all the possible Marys from the apocryphal tales were even given crowns! But it was the Mater Dolorosa who was privileged to wear not only the Crown of Heaven but the Daggers, the Siete Dolores, the Seven Sorrows.

Four days were allotted to colors and one day for Black. One day was needed to wipe the rainbows away; one color to kill all the tints invented by man.

But what is a ritual without contradictions; what is a ceremony without irony?

Just as silence had already been imposed, this lack of sound would be broken by the use of matracas or clappers. They are also referred to as liturgical rattles and are used in ceremonies after Christ had died. During processions of the Holy Sepulchre, which was followed by the Soledad, Mary in solitude in search for the grave of Her Son, these matracas were again used, said to represent the lighting and thunder that attended the Savior’s last breath.

There was also a singular tradition in radio during the Holy Week, and this was the playing of classical music or simply what was termed as “instrumental” music. This was to observe the sorrow that was about to come upon us believers. In our local history, this tradition was broken when it happened one Saturday morning in September 1972. We woke up that day to all the radios playing classical music. No news could be heard. We would find out much later: martial law had been declared all over the country.

That declaration would silence all things in our land, including free thoughts and free voices.


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