Fertility rites – Obando Feast

In spite of all its rich humanistic endowment, the authorities of the Catholic Church, in its more than two millennia of recorded history, have never shied away from savvy street survival tactics. When it encountered some strongly ingrained social traditions, oftentimes borne out of dark, superstitious, and dangerous periods of communities’ history and legacy, it has tried to co-opt certain so-called “pagan practices” to carry its religious dogma in a socially acceptable way. We have already discussed this strategy in our article about the Celtic feast of Samhein in Europe.

In Ancient Times, before the Spanish conquistadores ever set foot on their islands, the Filipino people had practiced a yearly ritual called kasilonawan for women that could not bear children, which lowered their social status considerably in the clans. Initially the concerned women danced in front of pagan deities, but the Franciscan missionaries, that came with the occupying army, replaced them with three saints. The centralized festivities are now known as the Obando Feast, named after the little town of Manila Bay where it religiously occurs every May. Nowadays the rituals are played inside the church of San Pascual Baylon church and in highly structured mass processions, both featuring a five-step dance, whose choreography was modernized in 1993.

Portia Ladrido, a CNN contributor, said in a report: “The dance is held inside the church, and one would expect a more solemn celebration, but the dance is more of a lively production rather than a sacred prayer. There is a host (or sort of hype man) who pronounces what kind of petition one is asking for (“SA mga gusto magka-anak…Sayaw!” he shouts) and the crowd proceeds to waltzing.” The enthusiasm for this dance is so intense that, not only there are tutorial videos about how to shake the leg, but the parish authorities posted their version in the Facebook page.

The town of Obando, in Manila Bay, has been “the town of three saints” for a long time. San Pascual Baylon and Santa Clara are two saints whose devotion was introduced by the Franciscan missionaries before the parish foundation in 1753. Our Lady of Salambao , the third saint, evokes the apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1763. We should imagine the profound emotional shock that word of the Virgin’s arrival might have had in the largely illiterate and poor residents of the area. A sign of Hope. Local lore states that in 1763 three brothers, who were fishing in Manila Bay, found a statue of the Virgin Mary in their net. When they tried to head back to their hometown of Malambo, their boat would not move, but when they changed its direction to Obando, it immediately propelled forward. Like all the acts of pure faith, you either believe it or not.

In an extensive report in Catholics and Cultures, they said: “May is an exceedingly hot and humid month, so Masses for each feast day begin before dawn in the relative cool of the morning. Each of the three days has a similar format, though each celebrates a different saint at the front of the procession and in church, while the others two follow behind in the procession.” Even though the plaza in front of the church is filled with many vendors peddling all kind of merchandise like amulets, souvenirs, commemorating eggs, etc., it is swiftly cleared before the processions. The local parish does its brisk business too, with some sisters selling saints’ images and seminarians selling eggs with ribbons of different colors, representing “wishes.” The hourly morning masses are packed with attendees, even spilling over into the plaza.

At 8 AM, the procession starts in the plaza, with marching bands, dances (some of the costumed dancers are hired by pilgrims with wishes) and the public; unlike other Catholic processions, there is not a formal presence of parish authorities in the ritual. The dancing ritual was streamlined into a modern choreography presentation with the following 5 steps:

  1. The dancers clasp their hands with the thumbs pointing upward toward the heart while thy chant “Lord, we believe that You will give us a child.”
  2. The feminine dancers push their belly forward while their partners have their backs, all chanting “Lord, please heal me.”
  3. The feminine dancers move their palms clockwise, imitating the massage of an abdomen carrying a child, with their partners still backing them, and all chanting “Lord, please heal me.”
  4. The partners embrace to show their common objective of having a child.
  5. They dance together, rhythmically swaying their hands from left to right.

There are multiple accounts of successful outcomes, which fosters interest in the May ritual; most of the attendees had previously sought medical help or were even undergoing fertility treatments. They considered the ritual as only a complement. For couples frustrated for not bearing a child (something that many of us can relate to)  a few days of maladroit dancing in the Obando plaza is akin to buying a Lotto ticket.

 As the old Castilian saying goes: “La suerte es loca y a cualquiera le toca.”

Stay distant. Stay safe. Stay beautiful.

Note. The above saying means: “Luck is unpredictable and can favor anybody.”

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.