Filipinos have a tendency to adopt a tradition and make it their own by incorporating their own cultural twists. For instance, Undas—those two days that include Todos Los Santos or All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day or Araw ng Kaluluwa—was borne out of our deep Catholic tradition but the way we celebrate it over the years has become distinctly Filipino.
All Saints’ Day, which is celebrated on the first of November is a Catholic holy day of obligation that honors all the saints and martyrs of the church. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III dedicated a chapel at the Vatican in honor of all the saints, then Pope Gregory IV later extended this celebration of all saints to the universal church.
All Souls’ Day, on the other hand, is the day we are supposed to remember the deceased. Formally the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed gives us the opportunity to remember and pray for loved ones who have died. In particular the Church urges the faithful to pray for all the souls in purgatory. But it is in the manner of the remembrance that Filipinos have stamped their unique cultural imprimatur on these traditions.
Much of these practices occur in cemeteries where we bury our dead. The visit to the grave of family members and loved ones who died is an integral part of our Undas experience. In the Philippines, Undas has become an occasion for families to get together. In some instances it calls for a family reunion.
Filipinos have transformed this religious and hallowed tradition into a celebration. I remember when we used to go to the cemetery, I would see families staying overnight by the tomb of their loved ones. They would bring food so they can share a meal as they stay overnight. Some bring tents, while others actually sleep atop their loved ones’ graves. Kids would be running around the grounds of the sementeryo collecting melted candles. I remember peeling off the melted drippings of candles and making a big ball of candle wax.
Some would bring guitars and sing songs all throughout the night. Later on karaoke and videoke would invade the Undas celebrations despite admonitions from authorities. There were teens who would sneak in alcoholic beverages which they consume to while away the time. This is the reason why long queues form at the entrance of cemeteries because authorities inspect for prohibited materials that some people might bring in.
These practices were halted when we were hit with the Covid-19 pandemic. For two years straight—2020 and 2021—authorities closed cemeteries nationwide to prevent the transmission of the deadly virus.
Some would criticize these practices as deviations from the original intent of the commemoration. And for the most part they would be right. Some of these practices have turned violent in the past with people who cannot carry their liquor engaging in fights. At times the revelry have become so noisy preventing any prayerful and somber commemoration.
But I think it is also worthy to note that the idea of families getting together to celebrate the life and death of loved ones is something that is pleasantly Filipino. The family is the center of Filipino culture and we would invent any excuse just to have a get together. Modern urban life has eroded a bit but for the most part I would like to believe that this is still true for most Filipino homes.
In a sense, Undas is indeed our “Christmas before Christmas.” Filipinos continue to pay respect to the dead but also celebrate being with their loved ones, both alive and departed. It is uniquely Filipino to always find an opportunity to get together with loved ones. Leave it to Filipinos to balance being respectful and celebratory.