I wasn't used to seeing so many churches when I first arrived in the Philippines, as Buddhism and Islam are the predominant religions in the rest the region. It was definitely a change of scenery. However, in the Philippines, roughly 90% of the population is Christian – 80% of which subscribe to Catholicism. The strong presence of Christianity in the country is the result of Spanish and American colonialism. And as a country with more Catholic citizens than any other in Asia, Christian holidays are regularly observed. I must say, Filipinos are excessively zealous when celebrating certain holidays. Currently, as a case in point, is the celebration of Christmas. The Christmas season in the Philippines begins in September. Yes, that early. But this blog isn't about Christmas. That’s a topic for another day.
All Saints Day or “Araw ng mga Patay” (Day of the Dead) as it’s referred to in the Philippines, isn’t a holiday which has been overshadowed by Halloween as in the United States. Quite the contrary. It’s a major holiday in the Philippines observed from November 1-2 with the celebration of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The combination of the two is referred to as Undas.
Sheila told me that every year it’s a tradition for her family to celebrate the holiday by visiting the cemetery to pay respect to the dearly departed. And not only do they visit the cemetery, but they spend the night there as well. That’s right, a good ‘ol fashion sleepover at the graveyard. Needless to say, when Sheila asked if I would like to join her family for the yearly traditional sleepover in the cemetery, I responded with an enthusiastic “Giddy up!”
The entire family crammed into the large van for the one and a half hour drive to the cemetery. Sheila’s uncle, Tito Freddy, made it very clear while driving that the word 'cemetery' in the Philippines is referred to as 'sementeryo', which he repeated like a broken record throughout the entire drive so I wouldn't forget. I’m not exaggerating either when I say the entire drive.
“For the love of God!”
Eventually I fell asleep, only to dream about a sementeryo and images of cheerios. And when I awoke he hadn't skipped a beat.
I was surprised to see how crowded it was when we arrived at the sementeryo. For some reason, I had thought the tradition was endemic to Sheila's family. I didn't realize that everyone and there mama would be there as well. Seriously, it was like a family reunion or something. There were so many people that police had to direct traffic. I love some of the vests these guys wear which read 'Traffic Enforcer', not to be confused with people who simply 'direct traffic'. And speaking of enforcement, many security officers could be found patrolling the graveyard for unlawful behavior. Is there anywhere these guys don't patrol? They're everywhere, I tell ya. It has to be the profession that employs the most amount of people in the Philippines.
For me, thinking about visiting the sementeryo conjured images of a sad and solemn atmosphere. Oh, how wrong I was. It was more of a party, festive atmosphere - a time where people caught up with family and friends, played games, and ate food.
One of the strangest sights for me were the amount of businesses present within the sementeryo attempting to capitalize from the holiday. The streets were lined with tents full of food businesses from Dunkin' Donuts to Shakey's. I was hoping to find a McDonald's and have a picture taken of me eating a Big Mac next to a tombstone. I guess the company refrained from participating in this year's Day of the Dead (and probably for good reason) as I couldn't find it.
The perpetual rain that continued throughout the evening prevented many people from partying as long as they would've liked. That said, I think Sheila's family and I went to sleep around 1am. I didn't get much sleep that night, however, laying outside under an open-air tarp while amongst unfamiliar tombstones of the dead as vendors selling balut, a popular snack in the Philippines consisting of a fertilized chicken egg, continually shouted in a way to advertise their product.
I don't think I'll ever think of this holiday the same again. Celebrating All Saints Day in the Philippines was quite the experience, to say the least.