It has been a struggle writing this post because more than anything I want to be able to convey in words, just how special this experience was for me. I was talking to my ‘Girls’ back home, on my regular monthly Girls night via Skype and I told them how I was struggling to find the words. I then proceeded to tell them about this night and they said ‘just like that, say it just like that’. So, that is what I will try to do.
All Souls Day. The day the living celebrate the lives of their ancestors who have passed over. I first learned about this last year when we started watching Brian Cox’s ‘Wonders of Life’ documentary. The opening scenes are filmed in Sagada on All Souls Day. I remember watching this documentary, knowing we were moving here, and feeling that I was witnessing something remarkable. I felt so connected to this ritual that I stated then and there, I did not care how it happened, I would be there next year. So that is how we came to be in Sagada and I have spent this whole year waiting for that moment.
All Souls Day is a day of celebration, joy, remembrance and love built around Christianity and I will say it – there are elements of the ancient traditions of Animalism entwined too. The thickness of familial ties is great here and it is an occasion like this that you really see it connect through the generations. On this day families gather, feast, pray and remember. In the evening a visit is made to the cemetery where traditionally, fires are lit at the graveside to invite their ancestors to join the celebration. Families sit around, hang out eating, talking and remembering.
Here, the veil is lifted. This is where you can reach out and touch the other side.
This year the celebrations in Sagada were held on November 1, since it was a Sunday. In actual fact this day is All Saints Day, the day reserved for church members who have passed over, or those who have been baptized. All Souls Day falls the day after, November 2ndand is the time to celebrate anyone who has passed – baptized or not. I was speaking to some locals in the cemetery who told me Sunday was the day for celebration this year as the Monday was not a holiday. Celebrations start early in the day when families come together, they feast and they pray. They reminisce about their ancestors.
We went into town at 3.30pm and found our way to The Strawberry Café for afternoon tea. Strawberry yogurt kept the children satisfied until we found our evening meal later that night. As we took a walk down the street, taking in the town I noticed the gentle energy that flowed on the breeze. Locals were already preparing for the night ahead, walking up towards the cemetery with small piles of pine kindling tied with twine, attached to their backs, or swinging casually from their grasp.
It was about 4.30pm when we arrived at the Churchyard. The streets were bustling and the Church was overflowing with people observing Mass. Many people sat around outside. The sound of thunder rumbled in the distance.
Just up from the Church, up some stairs, there is a pathway that leads into the cemetery that sits nestled into a mountainside. As you walk up this pathway for the first time you feel like you are walking into a secret. Then the space opens and you see the tall trees growing amongst the tombs and you just know there is something magical; something special here. As with this town, this cemetery is surrounded by mountain valleys and you see the gentle mist drift through the trees and hear the soft echo of the wind as it passes through the tall pine trees. White rectangular tombs sit nestled into this space alongside simple headstones and wooden crosses.
The daylight was still high when we arrived and the cemetery was already filled with families. As we walked through the main entrance an elderly man hobbled down past us, walking down some steps to a large white tomb. We said hello and he pointed to the tomb, and said ‘my wife’. I was incredibly moved by this moment but only for a brief time. You see All Souls Day is a time of celebration. This is a time of joy, of happiness and it is impossible to feel otherwise when you look around at the children running around and playing, and when you absorb the energy and the essence dancing around this place. The air was filled with laughter, with excited voices. People were just so happy and I observed that while this was an annual ritual, it just felt so much a part of normal life for these locals.
At about 5.30pm a Priest stood on higher ground overlooking the cemetery at what looked like a pulpit. Large, white with a giant cross. A prayer was held and a giant fire lit with pine kindling. As the flames grew higher and hotter, blessings were said and then the Lords Prayer. Finally a loud booming voice announced it was time to ‘light your fires!’ and a call for fun and frivolity. People rushed with their kindling, the sounds of laughter and happy noise growing louder as they came to collect a flame from this place. As more people moved forwards they started to share their flame with each other. This was an incredible sight. People taking the time to help light the fires of their friends, their community. It felt symbolic of the connection these people had to one another.
One of the elements of All Souls Day in Sagada that I particularly love is that they still traditionally use the pine to light fires. Apparently in a lot of cities and other places now, it is mostly candles that are lit. This is one of the few places that still use the traditional fire.
Once people had their flame they returned to their ancestor’s tombs and grave sites and they lit their fires. Smoke soon filled the air and stung our eyes and suffocated our lungs.
We sat up on higher ground, on a wall of stones so we would not get in peoples way. We wanted to observe, to learn, and to experience yet mindful that we are guests here. Every footstep we took was considered so as to show utmost respect to the locals. So SB and I took turns walking around this cemetery collecting photographs and absorbing this incredible happiness energy that was just pulsating now as the fires grew.
As the sun was setting I started talking to a small group. A charming police officer and some other locals who happily spoke to me of this tradition. ‘Of course’ he replied when I observed that this was a celebration of life and of our afterlife. He said this is the time ‘we remember our Creator’. We spoke of avoiding bush fires and joked about how most people in Sagada were related, how many fires did they have to light tonight? They were so proud that they could share this tradition with me and the other visitors who had made the trek here. A TV news crew were walking around filming and they grabbed me to say a few words. I was mortified as I was not fit for a television appearance however I really didn’t think anyone would see it. Our neighbours not only did see it, they also took screen shots of my big moment…
As the sky darkened the flames became brighter and the outline of shadows moved around in-between. I had walked back to where we were sitting on the wall. The flicker of flames lit up our eyes as we watched what was happening and listening to the sounds of laughter and beautiful noise riding on the cool, gentle breeze. I remember thinking ‘I am finally here, it feels like a dream’. I was finally witnessing this ritual that I had been in love with for so long and it was beyond my expectations.
We stayed until flames started to fade, then made our way back out. I walked away feeling sad that I may never get to experience this again. Yet I felt so excited and humbled that I had. As we walked out of the cemetery and through Churchyard, the Church Bells were ringing.
We went back into town and felt ourselves buzzing. We were on such happy highs. We had absorbed that amazing energy and felt incredible, felt euphoric. I felt so light, like nothing could touch me, nothing could hurt me, nothing could bring me down. It was, simply put, amazing…times a million.
Walking down the street again, we found ourselves in a teeny tiny kitchen called Lucky’s. Seriously, this place was about the size of my kitchen at home in Manila, and that is not big.
Down a few steps, and a narrow walkway a neon sign flashed ‘Welcome’. Off to the right you walk through the door into this tiny space with three narrow benches with narrow bench seats. Another narrow bench sat across the back wall and a small old fashioned TV sat perched on a shelf next to the refrigerator with a Filipino Game show airing. Three ladies worked here, the cook at her normal kitchen stove, a kitchen hand and the other we guessed was the waitress. Although with just us as guests, she was happy to sit and watch TV with our driver. We ordered several traditional Filipino dishes and I brought a bottle of Sagada Wine, Blueberry. The cook clamored around in her teeny tiny kitchen, cooking one dish at a time on her teeny tiny stovetop as we sat, chatted and listened to the really bad karaoke that filtered down through the next door tavern. I guzzled the gorgeous wine. Our dishes came out one by one, pancit, lumpia and stir fry vegetables. This was without question, the best meal we have ever had here in The Philippines. Ever. It was stunning.
Feeling even more elated we drove back to the Lodge. Falling into bed we drifted off into peaceful, happy slumber without hesitation. That incredible feeling of euphoria filling my dreams that night allowing me to wake the next day feeling refreshed and at peace.