All Souls Day in The Philippines: From Traditions to Transformations

All Souls’ Day is one of the biggest holidays in the Philippines, mainly because of its significance in the Filipinos’ deeply rooted and long-held Christian faith. Like the rest of the world, it is celebrated every 2nd of November, which comes after All Saints’ Day on 1st November.

All Souls’ Day is a day when Filipinos commemorate their departed loved ones, cherish their good memories, and offer prayers for them. Praying is a central part of this holiday as Filipinos believe that prayers would help their deceased relatives be cleansed of their past sins and finally go to heaven.

This holiday is also a chance for reunions as almost everyone goes back to their respective provinces to visit their relatives and families. The ambience of All Souls’ Day is evident in the Philippines when TVs are already filled with reports about the surging passengers at various transportation terminals. We can also hear the price monitoring of candles and flowers, and yes, promotions of TV dramas specially produced for this holiday.
Also, as All Souls’ Day approaches, people start to flock to the cemeteries to clean, arrange, and beautify their loved ones’ tombs to prepare for the special event. On the day itself, expect that every cemetery, even the biggest ones, is congested with countless people visiting their family’s tombs. Almost all visitors literally camp in cemeteries for three straight days to make the most of their commemoration and yearly gathering.

For those who cannot make it to the cemeteries, they pay respects to their loved ones by lighting a candle in front of their houses. Each candle represents one family member or relative who have died. The general atmosphere of All Souls’ Day in the Philippines is not really gloomy or totally solemn. In fact, it can be likened to a Christmas celebration, filled with laughter, singing, and merry making. Everybody is so accustomed to this yearly celebration, but it seems that very few have asked when and how exactly this tradition started in the Philippines.

Going Back in Time

The celebration of All Souls’ Day, which is a Catholic tradition, was brought by missionaries to the Philippines as a customary way of commemorating the dead. Although it was obviously a foreign celebration to the pagan inhabitants of the Philippines back then, All Souls’ Day was perfectly adopted by Filipinos as it closely resembled their own death and burial rituals and beliefs.

Even before the Spaniards arrived in the Philippines, the archipelago’s inhabitants already had a strong belief in the afterlife. Also, they were already practicing various burial rites for a long time. Some of these practices were burying their dead in the trunk of trees, making their deceased loved ones sit in the caves, and hanging their coffins in the mountains. With the strong belief in the afterlife and high respect for the dead already in place, making Filipinos adopt the observance of All Souls Day’ was easy for missionaries.

Centuries have passed since it was adopted by the country’s early inhabitants and it remains deeply rooted in our tradition today and has become a part of our Filipino identity.

Filipino Traditions During All Souls’ Day

A lot of people may not be familiar with the term ‘Atang,’ but it is beyond doubt that this tradition always takes centre stage when All Souls’ Day is celebrated in the Philippines.

It is the act of serving the favourite dish of a departed loved one and placing it on his favourite part of the house or right on top of his tomb, in the belief that he would enjoy this dish in the afterlife. But everyone in the gathering would also enjoy their meals as each relative brings out their delicious dishes on the table, adding variety to the afternoon and evening meals. As relatives and families gather around to eat their meals, the conversation would always revolve around their departed loved ones.

The “remember when” stories would go on and on as each relative’s story would make way for another one, filling the long conversation with both joy and sadness. But everybody should expect that these conversations would take longer as these would eventually lean on how everybody was doing that year.

As the evening approaches, everyone would then be in the mood to share their own ghost stories, and this is where the conversation gets more interesting. The laughter and weeping would now cease as everybody is focused on the creepy story being shared by one of their relatives.
Watching horror movies is also a must during this season as Filipinos never fail to gather around their TV sets to watch ‘TV Specials’ featuring classic Pinoy horror films. These films include ‘Feng Shui,’ ‘Sukob,’ ‘Shake Rattle and Roll’ (with its almost endless sequels), ‘The Healing,’ and ‘Ouija.’ Expect that every house would be filled with screams as everybody is glued to their TVs watching their favourite horror films.

This year, the Philippines and the rest of the world have unfortunately witnessed a real-life ‘horror’ as the Covid-19 virus spread throughout the globe and claimed a lot of lives. This global pandemic has literally changed everything almost overnight and has resulted in the ‘New Normal’ we know today.

Nothing was spared from the major changes that followed, even the most deeply rooted traditions that Filipinos held dearly for centuries, which includes their beloved All Souls’ Day.

The Unimaginable Is Now a Reality

Just a year ago, it seemed next to impossible to see all cemeteries in the Philippines closed during the ‘Undas’ season. Why? Because nobody thought that such a thing would ever happen.

Until now.

With the challenges that Filipinos have faced (and are still facing) this year due to the global pandemic, closing the cemeteries to the public is a very timely decision. Although it would prevent millions of Filipinos from continuing their yearly tradition of honouring their departed loved ones, everybody understands that it is highly necessary.

Since the threat of the deadly virus is still serious, public health must be a top priority more than anything. That is why back in September, it has been announced that major cemeteries in the Philippines, including columbariums and memorial parks, would be closed during the ‘Undas’ season to prevent mass gatherings and the spread of the virus.

Two Things That the Pandemic Cannot Change

The global pandemic has certainly changed almost everything, including how we celebrate our centuries-old traditions. But even with the pandemic’s might, there are still two things that it cannot possibly change: Our high respect for traditions and, of course, our special commemoration for our departed loved ones.

The present changes are only temporary. The traditions that we hold sacred and dear, All Souls’ Day amongst them, will go on forever.

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