The significance of January to Filipinos | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

The significance of January to Filipinos

/ 12:09 AM January 06, 2016

IN THE revised Church calendar, the Feast of the Epiphany is set for the first Sunday after Christmas (Dec. 25). This year, 2016, the Epiphany was celebrated last Jan. 3 rather than on Jan. 6, the traditional date for the Feast of the Epiphany, which is better known as the Feast of the Three Kings and as the day marking the official end of the long Philippine Christmas season.

Jan. 6 is also the traditional date for taking down Christmas decorations, and in some places, like the old Casino Español off Taft Avenue, following an old Spanish custom, three men in costumes, astride horses, distribute goodies to children. The “Three Kings” were the original gift-givers who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the Christ Child in a manger 2,000 years ago.

Today, the Three Kings have been reduced to quaint images in a “belen” because gift-giving is now left to Santa Claus from the North Pole, who flies around in a sled pulled by reindeers led by Rudolph which has a red nose. Filipinos of a certain age still know the names of the Three Kings: Gaspar, Melchor, and Baltazar, patron saints of the Parian district of Spanish Manila. Filipinos who lived through the Marcos years probably associate “epiphany” with the name of the long-serving Social Services Secretary Estefania Aldaba-Lim whose parents probably picked her name off the calendar on her birthday, Jan. 6.

Another figure from Philippine history who was born on Jan. 6, 1812, is better known as “[Ma]Tandang Sora” who got involved in the Philippine revolution of 1896 at the advanced age. Her official married name was Melchora Aquino de Ramos and history books would have carried a different name had Melchora Aquino’s parents named her after the other “kings,” Gaspar or Baltazar, instead. Then her nickname would have been “Gaspara” or “Baltazara” with the latter further shortened to “Zara” like the Spanish clothing brand!


Contrary to popular belief, Tandang Sora was not poor. She is said to have donated 100 cavans of rice and 10 carabaos to the cause. We are not sure if this accounting provided by the historian Gregorio Zaide includes the food she served the Katipuneros who assembled on her farm to hear Andres Bonifacio’s plans for the uprising. One account says that on the first day around 500 revolutionaries camped out in her farm and she fed them all. On the second day, the number doubled to around a thousand and she fed them too. On the third day, Bonifacio was informed that the Guardia Civil was approaching, so he thanked Tandang Sora for her hospitality and advised her to go into hiding. Tandang Sora still had enough for an early breakfast as well as “baon” (provisions) for the Katipuneros before they marched out of her farm.

Tandang Sora and her family fled to Novaliches where she was arrested by the Guardia Civil on Aug. 29, 1896, in a place called Pasong Putik. She was brought to Bilibid prison in Manila where she was interrogated by the Spanish authorities. But unlike other suspects she was not tortured in deference to her gender and advanced age. On Sept. 2, 1896, she was deported to the Marianas (Guam) only to return seven years later, specifically on Feb. 26, 1903, aboard a US ship, the SS Uranus, with 76 other Filipino exiles. By then she was all of 91 years of age. She is said to have refused a pension offered by the American colonial administration and died in Banlat, now part of Quezon City on Feb. 20, 1919, at the age of 107.

Tandang Sora reminds us that heroism takes many forms: You can use a pen like Rizal, or a bolo or gun like Bonifacio, or you give of your talent or possessions, for the sake of nation.

January, the first month of the year, has its roots in the Latin word for door, “ianua” or “janua,.” The first month of the year is probably named after the door because it opens or closes to two sides and it is in this month that we leave the past year when we enter the next year, moving from past to future. We also see these in two great religious fiestas in the Philippines: the Feast of the Black Nazarene of Quiapo on Jan. 9 and the Feast of the Santo Niño on the third Sunday of January. Here two images of the same Jesus Christ are venerated and feted—a cute child from the historic churches of Cebu and Tondo and the suffering adult carrying a cross from Quiapo. All these events go back a long way in our history, and in 2016 this column will attempt to relate the past and the present.


Last Sunday, following an ancient German custom I learned from the Benedictine nuns of Tutzing who run St. Scholastica’s College in Manila, I got a piece of chalk and wrote the following atop the main door to our home: “20+C+M+B+16,” which looks like a revolutionary code or an anting-anting to those who see it. The numbers pertain to the present year, 2016, while the letters relating to the “Three Kings”—Caspar, Melchor and Baltazar—can also be taken to mean the Latin phrase “Christus Benedicat Mansionem” (Christ bless our house). There is nothing superstitious or otherworldly about this, it’s just an invitation to all men of good will who are welcome in our house and a repellent for all things bad.

On New Year’s Eve we gathered as family to feast, bond and welcome 2016 with noise and good cheer. At the same time we looked back in gratitude for all the good things that came with 2015 and bid good riddance to the bad. Now that Christmas is finally over, its time to confront 2016 and all it brings.


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TAGS: Catholic, church, Epiphany, January, look back, Mass, opinion, Sunday

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