Pahiyas: The Maytime Harvest Festival
by Daryl Orchard
The urge to celebrate seems to occur naturally to the Filipino. Many visitors to the islands have returned home with their holidays invigorated by their participation in a village fiesta. All walks of life frolic with equal abandon, with festivities held in the largest cities—and the tiniest rural hamlets.
The best time to witness these occasions is the month of May when across the countryside, farmers are collecting their crops after months of hard labor. A good harvest triggers a mixed emotion of joy and relief, whereas a poor one signals a time of reflection and belt-tightening. However, a disappointing crop can only dampen, but not extinguish, a burning desire to enliven the human spirit. There are a few days of rest before the fields have to be prepared for the new planting season and everybody is determined to make the most of this natural break.
Perhaps the most spectacular location to witness the full glory of the Filipino fiesta is the small town of Lucban. Situated 87 miles southeast of Manila, in the province of Quezon, it lies under the shadow of the dormant volcano, Mount Banahaw. Lucban is a quiet community, which for most of the year is content to follow the languid routine of rural life. But once a year it undergoes a stunning metamorphosis that transforms it into a place of rare beauty and artistic ingenuity.
The town is a maze of narrow, winding streets that meander across the ridge of a steep hill. A mixture of plain concrete houses and grand colonial mansions shelter a population of around 40,000. Most are small landowners, blessed by the fertility of the volcanic soil that affords them a comfortable standard of living. The townspeople are reverentially grateful for their good fortune and are imbued with a deep religious ardor. This gratitude is displayed each year on May 15, when the memory of their patron saint, San Isidro Labrador, is commemorated by the “Pahiyas.” The word can be translated as “precious offering,” “jewel,” or “decoration,” and for several days, the locals think of little else.
As the Pahiyas is a harvest festival, it is the produce of the land that serves to transform the town during this time. The route for the festival’s grand procession is chosen a month before and by the morning of the 14th, the houses adjoining the way are a hive of furious activity. The most famous adornment is the extravagant kiping, leaf-shaped buntings made of rice dough rolled into paper-thin wafers, covered in luminous food colorings and baked to harden. They are then fashioned into spectacular works of art—pieced together in overlapping layers to form billowing arangya (chandeliers), painstakingly arranged in concentric circles to represent a peacock’s tail and hung in endless lines of sharply contrasting colors from every available window and balcony. Many of these designs are passed down through successive generations, reproduced solely from memory, and constitute a kind of edible family heirloom. One excited participant estimated that there must be at least 110 pounds of rice hanging on the façade of her three-story residence.
The price of decorating a house for the Pahiyas can cost anything between US$400 and US$1,000. As the majority of the homeowners are ordinary working folk, a special degree of community spirit is invoked among friends and families to meet these expenses, as it would be unthinkable for any house along the procession route to retain its plain façade. The industriousness and creativity born of the Pahiyas are fueled by the twin imperatives of preserving an ancient tradition and attempting to outshine the efforts of immediate neighbors.
By early morning of the 15th the streets of Lucban will already heave with the presence of over 30,000 visitors, all swept up in a wave of unremitting hospitality—an eclectic mix of locals, visitors from Manila, overseas tourists and a large contingent of balikbayans. These are the Filipinos who have made their fortunes abroad but have chosen the occasion to spend time with relatives, some of whom they have not seen for many years. Almost everyone will be wearing the famous Lucban hat, a wide sombrero made from the fibers of the buri palm, and decorated in yellow, pink and blue spiral designs. Business will be brisk in the many market stalls that sell mementos of the festival.
The Pahiyas is as much about consuming the local produce, as it is about displaying it. Food and drink are consumed in copious quantities. Lucban is famous for its delicacies—the longganisa—pork sausage rich with the fragrance of crushed oregano leaves, the crispy sponge bread or broas, which is much-adored by the townspeople, and massive gingerbread baked in a host of animal shapes, that are a testament to a baker’s attempt to portray Noah’s procession into the ark. The adults wash it all down with the fabled lambanog coconut wine, distilled in yellow or red varieties, and said by its devotees to leave you free of a hangover however enthusiastically it has been consumed!
By mid-afternoon the revelers will be eagerly awaiting the climax of the Pahiyas. This takes the form of a grand procession, which pays homage to San Isidro, represented by a life-size statue, dressed in a flowing blue robe hemmed with gold braid. The saint is flanked by the figure of Jose Rizal, the Philippine National Hero, who was martyred by the Spanish in 1896, and those of Isidro’s wife and the Virgin Mary, all carved from solid mahogany. These are carried by a group of penitents hoping to atone for the sins they had committed during the previous years. Offerings of fruit and vegetables are placed at the Saint’s feet to thank him for the bountiful harvest. The crowd would watch, transfixed as the procession passes—another year’s prosperity would rest upon the holy devotion they now offered to their sacred benefactors.
After proper respects have been paid, the procession assumes the air of a Mardi Gras. Immense, lumbering carabaos join in, gaily decorated with garlands of flowers and ridden by young children. The thunder of drums announces the approach of an ati-atihan dance band, a regular fixture at most Filipino fiestas. Then follow the ten-foot-tall papier-mâché higantes, giants garbed in traditional peasant’s costume, manipulated from within large bamboo frames, chasing and teasing groups of children down the street. As the sun begins to sink behind Mount Banahaw, a blaze of firecrackers and sparklers will light up the evening sky. But still the procession will move along the twisting lanes, a bewildering blur of majorettes and marching bands. Not until the drone of the tricycles fill the roads, carrying weary revelers back to their beds, will the festivities finally end.
In the morning, Lucban will slowly return to its accustomed existence as a sleepy rural backwater. Farmers will start the ageless ceremony of preparing the fields for the forthcoming planting of the rice seedlings. It is a cycle that has continued unabated for centuries. With the benign presence of San Isidro watching over them, they will hopefully gather another successful harvest next May. Whatever their fortunes over the coming year, it is certain that their worries and fears will be put aside once the beauty and reverence of the Pahiyas transform their town again.
Source: Mabuhay (May 1997, p. 29-31)