Christmas may be the Philippines’ most festive season, but undas is another tradition altogether,
As every former colony of Spain will show, Catholicism anchored itself into the cultures under the Spanish. While Islam, Buddhism, and Hindu sects thrive in the region, the Philippines remains the only predominantly Roman Catholic country in Asia. Christmas is our most festive season, but our celebration of All Saints’ Day [November 1st] and All Souls’ Day [November 2nd] is something we have made our own.
Called undas in the Philippines, November 1 and 2 are treated with the same reverence of a funeral; this means there is always plenty of family, food, some gambling, and good, good stories.
My maternal grandparents fled China in the ’50s, during the Communist Revolution. They eventually planted roots among the tsinoy of San Juan, Manila, where they built a home and raised five children. Like most of their peers, they grew up with the traditions of Taoist and Buddhist of the mainland. But once in the Philippines, they embraced the Catholic, matriarchal, family centric culture quite easily.
We called them ama (grandmother) and angkong (grandfather).
My ama passed away when I was only four years old. As the youngest of four, my siblings can recall the sound of her voice and the way she shuffled around when upset or excited. My memory of her sits on the shallow end, dipped up to my ankles, watching the older kids dive for stones and coins.
Ama was more a concept to me than a person. Her pockets were perpetually stuffed with Butterball candies, which she gave out to each grandchild at the bargain price of a mano and a kiss on the cheek. Her garden was an odd assortment of barren, driftwood-on-cement pillars where she cared for her delicate collection of orchids. We were not allowed near them, under pain of disembowelment.
This never seemed an idle threat, as my grandparents were both doctors, and shared a small office in the lower floor of their modern, mid-century, built-downward home. The office had white tiled wainscoting and floors that always looked a little too clean. It was another place that was off limits, because the cousins of the clan felt as if it were a place only sick people visited.
Ama’s early passing meant that we had a ritualistic, post-Halloween excursion growing up.
Manila Memorial Park was always full, even if we arrived early. There were signs of people having spent the night at the graves and mausoleums of their loved ones. I always thought these people quite brave, so devoted to their loved ones that they chose to spend the night in a cemetery. Some spent two.
My grandmother’s grave was deep in the far end of the cemetery. The family worked in rotation and one always arrived first to make sure the site was clean and to set up chairs, tables, and awnings to keep the sun off.
Old candles that had burned down to waxy pools needed to be chiseled clear, and the nearby trees that had covered the area in crisp, brown leaves had to be swept up. Rusty bars had to be oiled and the one bathroom had to be set to an acceptable level of use.
The clan always met around lunchtime. Unlike Christmas or Chinese New Year, which were catered events at someone’s home, All Saints Day was a potluck event. As the only full-blooded Filipino, a cook, and as someone married to a wife who did not, my father took this part of annual gatherings seriously. He always strove to prepare dishes that his in-laws would be talking about till Christmas. He succeeded more often than not.
My grandmother’s plot was in an area mostly [eternally] occupied by Filipino-Chinese clans. If the occasionally large, ornate Chinese character on the gate of a mausoleum was not a [dead] give away, you could always spot the little braziers or kilns where families burned incense paper called kim—ghost money used in the afterlife. Every child learned to fold the coarse bamboo paper into the shape of a sycee, an old Chinese gold/silver ingots shaped like boats.
We often did this after the meal, gathering along the stone benches that fenced in the plot. We happily burned all our hard work after, usually while we prayed the rosary, commending the soul of our dead grandmother, and all our Chinese/Buddhist/Taoist ancestors, to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Churches Militant, Penitent, and Triumphant. The red seals on the paper stained our fingers and our hands were often chafed by the rough paper. We were allowed to play with fire, so we never complained.
Farther outward, closer to where the smaller plots and tombstones were located, there were food carts and kiosks that sold Pizza Hut by the slice next to kwek-kwek and fishball carts. There were vendors for flowers, candles, and kitschy religious paraphernalia.
We never bought flowers from here. My grandmother liked orchids. Everything else were weeds to her.
After lunch and prayers, we often begged our parents to let us go. Despite all the hearty, home-cooked food, many of us were young and perpetually hungry when it came to fast/junk food. Our family’s plot saw the occasional taho vendor or ice cream man, their distinct bells and calls loud enough to wake the dead. I have a clear memory of the cemetery being the first place I learned to eat/share Twin Popsies.
Mausoleums around us had fridges and bathrooms and back rooms with cots or even showers. But people here rarely spent the night. We certainly never did, and when the sun began to set, we often started to pack up, light one last incense sticks, half in pseudo-Catholic prayer, half in impish, permissive pyromania.
We added a few more of the large, red candles we let burn down to nothing long after we had left, to be chiseled off the floor next year. We would leave canned foods and fruits for the dead, then lock the gates and say our goodbyes to the living.
On the drive out, other families began to light their own candles, the shapes of small children balling up the wax of earlier candles and keeping them as lucky charms. Some brought out guitars or tuned their boomboxes to stations they liked. The people prepared to share dinner, songs, prayers, and some prepared for their second night in the cemetery.
Many of those leaving had braved traffic, crowds, heat, all for the sake of tradition, often reminiscing about the sweetness and terror their dead had visited on them. Even as those of us began the slow crawl out of the cemetery in our cars, you could see figures moving in the twilight.
A few years after my angkong passed, we slowly but surely became more economical with our undas. We no longer braved the November 1st crowds, choosing instead to visits on the usually lighter All-Souls Day. As time passed, we moved our family gatherings to a weekend before or after those holidays. In lieu of potluck meals around the mausoleum, we convoyed to a restaurant most of us have never tried. The prayers are shorter and if someone remembers to bring kim, we burn them without folding them. Sometimes, we even bring flowers.
As time passed, our tradition changed, not because we grew lazy but because families tend to grow, even as we lose people in it.
When angkong passed, most of my generation was already in college or starting their first jobs. Some family members had moved away or gotten married. There were other dead relatives on the spouse’s sides that also needed undas.
New traditions grew into ours, just as when my paternal grandparents passed, we grew new traditions for them. With a new generation after us, there were suddenly young people interested in learning to fold kim and light incense and play with candle wax.
I have come to realize that the undas of our generation was not much like the one of my parents. Our traditions are unique to our family, and as it grows and sheds new leaves, hopefully we will see a generation that values the old but is willing to give way to the new.
Undas is about celebrating the dead, the good and the bad of them, but also allowing for a new, better year of family, food, some gambling, and better stories.