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The journey of the humble ‘palaspas’

April 14, 2019

At the break of dawn, Belen Perolina and her family wake up to start the day. She quickly prepares a simple breakfast for her brood to nourish them for the busy day ahead. It is less than two weeks before the Catholic Church commemorates Palm Sunday — the Lord’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem — which calls them to prepare for annual opportunity to be of service to their faith while augmenting their honest and humble livelihood.

Blessed with hectares upon hectares of coconut trees in this vastly agricultural area, the Perolinas and their neighbors begin their harvest of young coconut leaves a fortnight before Palm Sunday to use for the “palaspas” they would weave and sell in various churches in Manila.

The run up to Palm Sunday is the only time they set aside weaving straw mats and hats — their bread and butter for the rest of the year — with the palaspas a sure sale as a quintessential symbol with which Catholics begin Holy Week.

An important day of the yearly Catholic calendar, and therefore across the predominantly Catholic Philippines, Palm Sunday — or Linggo ng Palaspas in Filipino — is also considered the culmination of the 40 days of Lent before the faithful are called to recall and reflect on the Passion and Resurrection of Christ from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday.

For generations of Filipino families, buying the palaspas and having them blessed at Palm Sunday Mass remains a significant ritual in helping them to embark on a week of repentance and prayer.

Jesus Christ’s journey

Palm Sunday is essentially the reenactment of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and to understand why it is important for Christians to commemorate this event in the Lord’s life is to recall the circumstances that led to his journey.

Interpreted by various sources based on the Bible, it is believed that before Jesus traveled to Jerusalem where he would lay down his life to save the world, he and his disciples had been staying in Bethany.

A few kilometers away from Jerusalem, according to the book The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700, Bethany is now known as Al-Eizariya town in the West Bank, the landlocked area between Israel and Jordan. It was in Bethany where Jesus performed the miracle of resurrecting Lazarus four days after his death.

Palm Sunday is essentially the reenactment of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, an event which Catholics across the nation commemorate with the palaspas. TMT FILE PHOTO

Retold from the New Testament by the website aglobalworld.com, “[Jesus] sent some of the disciples ahead of him to get a donkey on which he could be carried as he entered Jerusalem. Additionally, he asked the owner of the house to prepare the Upper Room for the Last Supper.”

As Jesus entered Jerusalem in a donkey, the Jews hailed him for they heard he was the Messiah from the Scriptures who had indeed performed miracles and would save them from oppression. They did so by laying clothes on the ground he would pass and waving palms, which, according to catholic.org, was considered a form of lavish praise and customary practice to welcome people regarded with the greatest respect.

The website further explained that palm branches were a “widely recognized symbol of peace and victory” while the use of a donkey instead of a horse symbolized the “humble arrival of someone in peace, as opposed to arriving on a steed in war.”

More than 2,000 years after Jesus Christ’s historic entry to Jerusalem, Christians around the world have adopted varying commemorations of Palm Sunday.

In the Philippines, the celebration of Palm Sunday emulates the simplicity of Christ with the officiating priest and the congregation proceeding from the church yard all the way to altar in praise of the King of Kings.

Palaspas for Filipinos

In the Philippines, the celebration of Palm Sunday emulates the simplicity of Christ with the officiating priest and the congregation gathering in a procession to go into church and toward the altar waving palms like the Jews.

In more conservative Catholic towns in the country, women might line the procession’s route with heirloom aprons or tapis and huge pieces of cloth, while children dressed as angels sing “Hosanna” and strew flowers as they walk ahead of the congregation.

The mass with a lengthy Gospel reading of the Passion of Christ ensues with the priest ending the eucharistic celebration by going around the church to bless the palms with holy water. Traditionally, Filipinos bring home the blessed palms either to place them at the altar or hang them on doorways and windows. The latter is done based on an olden belief hanging them in entryways and openings in a home would ward off evil spirits, avert lightning and — believe it or not — prevent fires. To these Filipinos, the palaspas are considered totems.

For many in nearby province of Laguna, palaspas-making enables them to be of service to the Church along with the opportunity to augment their livelihood.

“Blessed palms and candles can be kept in the icon corner of the house as [an] evloghia [meaning blessing], but they cannot avert lightning,” Fr. Anton Pascual, president of Radio Veritas Philippines, refuted in the Palm Sunday issue of The Sunday Times Magazine in 2015.

While the church allows palms to be fashioned in smaller crosses or personal devotion items to be kept for a year, they encourage the faithful to return palms to their parishes for use on Ash Wednesday the following year.

As catholic.org explains, “Because the palms are blessed, they may not be discarded as trash. Instead, they are appropriately gathered at the church and incinerated to create the ashes that will be used in the follow year’s Ash Wednesday observance.”

Palaspas-making

With the symbolic meaning of the palm and to the Catholic faith both explained, it may be of interest to learn about the humble palm’s own journey from the hands of humble folk and into those of their fellow faithful.

The Union of Catholic Asian News’ Joe Torres and Martin Jimenez wrote in 2017 that the tradition of palaspas making dates back to the pre-Hispanic era.

“In a 1589 account, Franciscan Father Juan de Plasencia noted that Filipinos use ‘leaves of the white palm, wrought into many designs’ to decorate lamps during festivities,” Torres and Jimenez wrote.

A quintessential symbol of Holy Week, the humble palaspas begins its journey with harvested and cleaned young coconut fronds, then weaved into beautiful strands by the hands of artistic devotees.

They added that similar uses of the palaspas have also been noted in non-Catholic ethnic groups citing the Islamized Tausug tribe in Mindanao who had used lightning-shaped palaspas as wedding decorations.

For countless generations, however, the sight of palaspas vendors selling simple to elaborately decorated palm leaves is common place every year a couple of days before Palm Sunday.

While city dwellers are inclined to think that the vendors are also from within the metro as re-sellers of palaspas, The Sunday Times Magazine learned from meeting the Perolinas that they are mostly from provinces who have made it their vow to make, transport and sell them in Churches across Manila.

‘Family’ business

It was on Palm Sunday 2018 when The Sunday Times Magazine first met the Perolina family who were among the throngs of palaspas vendors near Sto. Niño de Molino Parish Church in Pag-asa, Bacoor, Cavite.

From their hometown in Cavinti, a third class municipality in the province of Laguna, the Perolinas and almost everyone in their small barangay engage in making and selling palaspas year after year. Besides the two-week preparation of the actual palms, they need to travel three hours by land before dawn three to four days before Palm Sunday to make it to the first round of masses in various churches.

They transport huge and numerous sacks of palaspas and additional young palm fronds — all cleaned and cut up — in case they need to weave more depending on the demand, which expectedly surges on the day of Palm Sunday.

Lately for the Perolinas, they have decided not to go too far to set up shop and sell their palms in Bacoor City.

“Maaga pa lang, Huwebes Santo pa lang, pumupunta na kami dito sa Bacoor para magsimulang magtinda [as early as Maundy Thursday, we travel to Bacoor to start selling palms],” Nanay Belen, as she is fondly called, shared with The Sunday Times Magazine.

Nanay Belen averred she is a veteran when it comes to making and selling palaspas.

“Bata pa lang ako, namulatan ko na ang paggawa ng palaspas. Yung mga nauna sa akin, ang lola at nanay ko, pinakita sa akin kung paano gumawa ng palaspas hanggang sa matutunan ko na rin. Mahirap siya, nakakapagod pero tiyagaan lang.” [Ever since I was a child, I already knew how to weave palm fronds. I just watched my elders in the beginning until I eventually learned how to weave them on my own. It’s not easy to do and it’s very tiresome, but eventually, you also learn the patience to do it].

For generations of Filipino families, buying the palaspas and having them blessed at Palm Sunday Mass remains a significant ritual in helping them to embark on a week of repentance and prayer.

Nanay Belen proudly showed her expert handiwork with an wide array of designs she had mastered over the years. There is the “kandila” which resembles interwoven shoelaces; the “bawang bawang,” knots similar to garlic bulbs; and the “layung layung,” the bigger version specially made for mass officiants.

Nanay Belen further said that she was only tasked to weave and decorate the palm leaves as a little girl and left home as older members of her family went to Manila to sell them. Eventually in her teens, she was finally allowed to go to the city.

“Nagsimula ako magbenta sa San Pablo, Laguna pero nung nalaman kong mas malakas ang kita sa Maynila, sumama na rin ako dito [At first, I sold my palms in San Pablo City, Laguna but when I heard it was more profitable in Manila, I decided to go further].”

And so, for the past 15 years, Nanay Belen and her family — all five of children — would produce at least 50 pieces of palaspas each for days on end to come up with a total of 2,000 toward Palm Sunday.

Besides the monetary benefit, many palaspas vendors like Nanay Belen Perolina, see palaspas making as a form of penance they can offer to the Lord.

“Maganda rin naman ang kita, pero yung kita dun hindi ko naman sasabihing sobrang laki na sasapat na para sa gastusin namin sa buong taon. Nakakadagdag lang siya. [We make good money every year for Palm Sunday but I wouldn’t say it would go very far to augment our needs.]

If the amount is not substantial or commensurate to the effort the entire family puts into making, transporting and selling palaspas every year, The Sunday Times Magazine asked Nanay Belen why they continue to do it.

Her simple answer is faith.

“Maliban naman talaga sa kita, naging parang panata na namin ang paggawa sa palaspas, parang penitensya na rin ba taon-taon at sakripisyo para sa Diyos.” [Besides the monetary benefit, we have taken this on as a pledge to the Lord, a sort of penance we offer to him].

In fact, Nanay Belen added that in her hometown, the community somehow considers this tradition as a collective penance involving children as young as five or six years old in the process. It also unites the community and rejuvenates the old, who even at 90 would eagerly join the mass production of beribboned palm leaves.

Moreover, Nanay Belen shared that the heavens bless them for the sacrifice believing with all her heart that the good health of her family and the success of some of her children are result of their faithful devotion to palaspas-making.

Of her five children, two have already started their own families and are doing well. Another daughter was employed by San Miguel Corporation, while a yet another son landed a job in one of Makati’s biggest restaurants. Finally, she continues to be able to send her youngest to school as the child does her proud.

Nanay Belen will therefore tell anyone she will keep on making and selling palaspas for Palm Sunday as long as she is strong and able to do so. And with this, her fervent prayer is that her children, just like she did, can pass on this devotion and tradition to their own children and their children’s children.

“Dinarasal ko na dito mamatay ang paggawa ng palaspas pero nakakalungkot isipin kung sa malaon ay wala nang gagawa nito. Kaya sana sa pamamagitan ng pagsama namin sa aming mga anak at mga apo sa paggawa nito ay matutunan din nila itong mahalin.” [The possibility of this devotion fading away in generations to come in my family saddens me. I have promised to make these palm leaves every year until I die so I hope that by involving my children in doing this, they will also come to embrace devotion and keep it alive].

Credit belongs to : www.manilatimes.net

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