Dec. 8 used to be a holiday in Catholic schools because it marked the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Every year, in those old Catholic calendars of red and white complete with the phases of the moon, you would see Dec. 8 marked as the feast of the “Immaculada Concepcion” that led to so many baby girls born on or around this day to be christened Concepcion with the matching nickname “Chita” or “Concha.”
Times are different now and many people often think this annual commemoration refers to Christ being born to a “virgin,” when it actually refers to his mother, Mary, believed to have been conceived without “original sin.” Explaining this complicated theological debate to laymen is best left to my friends, the young Jesuit historians Tony de Castro and Madz Tumbali, but my interest in it stems from the theological debate that travelled from Europe to the Philippines in the Spanish period that left us with the annual cultural spectacle in the parade of images of the Virgin in Intramuros that occurs annually on the Sunday closest to Dec. 8.
On Dec. 8, 1619, a Sunday, High Mass was held in the Manila Cathedral in Intramuros that began a fiesta that ran for 19 days. Unbelievable to us in the 21st century, but understandable because people in the 17th century did not have the internet, cable TV and Candy Crush to while their time. So on Dec. 9, 1610, the Franciscans started the day with a Mass in their church followed by the greatest procession that Manila had ever seen. A Jesuit chronicle, published in the 55-volume compilation of historical documents by Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson, described it as follows:
“First came the whole force of Manila in perfect order, the arquebusiers and musketeers firing their pieces at intervals. Next came a rich standard bearing an image of the [Immaculate] Conception of the Virgin and at her feet Escoto [Duns Scotus] on his knees with [a line from the hymn Ave Regina Caelorum] inscribed by his mouth, Dignare me laudare te. After the standard that was borne by the Father Guardian, came a lay friar called Fray Junipero, who like the other, is regarded as a holy and simple man; he was dancing and calling out a thousand silly phrases about divine things. [Then] followed banners, crosses, and candlesticks. After these came floats [or carrozas bearing] the eight saints of the [Order of St. Francis], so richly adorned that the people did not know whether to marvel most that there should be so large a quantity of gold, jewels, and precious stones in Manila, or that the fathers should have collected so many of them. [Franciscans being a mendicant order that embraced poverty and the poor.] These [eight images of] saints were accompanied by eight groups of Filipino dancers—one with each saint, and each with its own device. One represented canons, one represented cardinals, another pastors, etc. The last sang while dancing. The intercalary stanza was: ‘Now we can speak aloud/And without fear/We can cry aloud to all the world/Without misgiving.’
“The dancers repeated this aloud three times, and then danced with their timbrels in their hands until they were exhausted. Last of all came the most holy Virgin of the [Immaculate] Conception. The procession reached the Cathedral and the fiesta was held. In the afternoon they presented a very devout drama on the martyrs of Japan.”
Simplicity being their custom, the Jesuits did not have a procession but they very well made up for it in a fireworks display accompanied by a thousand musical instruments that had never been seen in Manila before. Other accounts of the fiesta mention bullfights, masquerades, more fireworks, and a clown dressed as “original sin” who was appreciated by the many blows and pinches of the people. One can only imagine what the fiesta of 1619 must have been like, the pomp and pageantry, the gold and jewels that glittered and mesmerized the people. Travellers to Spanish Manila sometimes complained that the only entertainment to be had in was High Mass on Sundays followed by an execution in Bagumbayan. We have many distractions today and religion is not half as entertaining as it used to be.
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