Flores de Mayo: the Queen of All Festivals
The warm month of May ushers in the most festive month in the Philippines: Flores de Mayo or ‘Flowers of May.’ Straddling between hot April and rainy June, May ushers in a spring-like abundance of flowers and fruits and the harvest season. But actually, Flores de Mayo also traces its history from deeply religious roots.
What is Flores de Mayo?
Flores de Mayo, also known as Flores de Maria (Flowers of Mary) or Alay (offering), is a yearly Catholic and Aglipayan celebration in May that pays tribute to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Many connect Flores de Mayo devotions as a way of thanking the Blessed Virgin for the rains that finally end summer. However, history links it to the 1854 Spanish custom of the Inmaculada Concepción (Immaculate Conception) and the subsequent 1867 of the devotional ‘Mariquít na Bulaclac nasa Pagninilaynilay sa Buong Buannang Mayo ay Inihahandog nañg mañga Devoto cay María Santísima’ or Beautiful Flowers that in the Meditations in the Whole Month of May are Offered by Devotees to Mary Most Holy.
The 1800s customs led many Catholics around the country to the practice of laying wreaths on an image of Mary and the recitation of the rosary as a way of praising the Virgin Mother every year. The schedule of Flores de Mayo church celebrations vary per province. But they are nevertheless done throughout the month, paving the way for Flores de Mayo to be called the ‘Queen of All Filipino Festivals.
There are two other events during Flores de Mayo which led Filipinos to name it Queen of All Festivals: the Sagala and the Santacruzan. These events come from deep historical and religious backgrounds. But modern celebrations have also transformed them into quests to find town belles and beauties.
The Sagala pertains to the girls and women who play important roles in Flores de Mayo’s culminating parade, the Santacruzan. The search for the sagala has become a beauty contest of sorts among towns in the provinces and barangays in major cities. But usually, they are handpicked by the organisers of the Santacruzan parade.
There are really no rules when searching for the girls, teens and women who will join the sagala. But the age range usually falls from elementary school girls to women in university. The sagalas usually wear dresses and gowns, carry props that reflect their roles in the parade and are surrounded by a lighted bamboo or wooden canopy carrying their name.
The sagalas personify Christian virtues, Biblical and historic characters that are important in the Catholic narrative of the Philippines. They are reynas (queens) and have escorts that don’t necessarily have names. Here are the most popular sagalas during Flores de Mayo activities:
- Reyna Fe. The Queen of Faith carries a cross.
- Reyna Esperanza. The Queen of Hope carries an anchor.
- Reyna Caridad. The Queen of Charity carries a red heart.
- Reyna Sentencia. The Queen Convicted represents those who were martyred for the faith and has her hands bound.
- Reyna Mora. The Queen of the Moors represents the Philippines during pre-Christian times.
- Reyna Sheba. Queen Sheba, representing the woman who visited King Solomon for his wisdom, carries a jewelry box.
- Reyna Ester. Queen Esther, representing the Biblical Jewish Queen and hero of Persia, carries a scepter.
- Veronica. The representation of the woman who wiped the face of Jesus during his Passion carries a bandana or wears a veil.
- Reyna Abogada. The Queen Advocate is the defender of the poor and oppressed and carries a large book.
- Reyna Justicia. The Queen of Justice wields a sword and weighing scale.
- Tres Marias. The three women in Jesus’ life: Mary Magdalene, the Blessed Virgin Mary and Mary, mother of James
- Reyna Emperatriz. Queen Empress is a representation of Saint Helena, whose history is the basis for the Santacruzan
- Reyna Elena. Queen Helena represents Saint Helena of Constantinople and carries a crucifix in her arms.
The role of Reyna Elena is usually reserved to the most beautiful out of all the sagalas. Unlike the other sagalas who are usually escorted by someone their age, Reyna Elena is escorted by a young boy, Constantino, who represents the young Constantine the Great, the son of Saint Helena. The story of Saint Helena of Constantine is very important because it explains why Filipino Catholics celebrate Santacruzan.
According to legends, 300 years after Christ’s death Helena of Constantinople went to Calvary, the site of the crucifixion, to search for Jesus’ cross. She found the three crosses after archeological digs and commanded one of her sick servants lie on each cross to find out which one was used by Jesus. When the servant was healed after touching one of the crosses, Helena finally knew for sure which of the three Jesus’ cross, the True Cross, was.
The Santacruzan play-procession, which falls on the last day of Flores de Mayo, celebrates Saint Helena’s discovery of the True Cross. Aside from the sagala, the procession may be led by a marching band followed by a float carrying the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary surrounded by flowers. Some processions are lighted by electricity powered by a generator while others are lighted by torches and candlelight.
The routes of the procession vary per town or barangay, but some usually start and end at the local church gates.
Although Flores de Mayo is a nationwide celebration, there is not one way to celebrate it.
In Pampanga, the Santacruzan procession also features a duelling portion wherein costumed performers interrupt the parade and challenge the escorts to fight. This tradition is called Sabat, and represents the ambushes the Moro people made to Helena of Constantinople and her Crusade as they returned to Europe with the True Cross.
In Batangas, traditional Tagalog poetry is read out that calls out the names of the sagalas and describes the Blessed Virgin Mary’s role in the salvation of Catholics.
Some Catholics also take the time to go on heritage trips to churches that are dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, including the La Asuncion de la Nuestra Señora Church of Maragondon, Cavite and La Inmaculada ConcepciónChurch of Balayan, Batangas.
Traditional Filipino games for townsfolk are also held in town centres and it allows hermanos and hermanas (gift-givers) the chance to give away treats to participants. In modern times, the hermano and hermana tradition has been used by politicians and celebrities as a time to endorse their names to the public.
Some games played during Flores de Mayo are the pabitin and the palosebo. In the pabitin, snacks and toys are tied to a bamboo grille and hoisted above kids’ heads. The kids then have to jump to reach the goodies until all of them are taken. In the palosebo, the local version of the greasy pole, kids to adults have to climb a greased bamboo pole to catch the flag on the very top for a prize.
Around the world
Although it has a basis in the Catholic faith, the Flores de Mayo as it is celebrated by Filipinos is not celebrated by other nations around the world. The Roman Catholic Church actually celebrates St Helena’s feast in August.
What makes Flores de Mayo celebrations unique among Filipinos is that they are still celebrated among Filipino communities around the world, giving non-Filipinos a peek at this traditional celebration. The Santacruzan is especially a favourite among Filipinos abroad as it gives them a chance to outdo each other in terms of fashion and beauty, traits that the Filipina is known for.
Santacruzan in other parts of the globe is also an occasion to gather the local Filipino church groups and celebrate the faith through thanksgiving and remembrance of the culture and heritage of the Philippines.