One of the fondest childhood memories I have growing up in the Philippines, particularly in the college town of Los Banos, Laguna, is that the month of May is a festive month. It stands out in my memory because for one, it was a summer vacation month (at least when I was growing up). And in a college town where many activities revolve around the University calendar, the atmosphere was definitely different; the crowds have thinned out and there’s a festive, more laid back feeling in the air. But what made this month memorable were several festive celebrations, Flores De Mayo (Flowers of May), Santacruzan (in English, it means “Holy Cross”), and the fiesta of the Patron Saint of my barangay, San Isidro. The streets, the churches, and even the makeshift basketball courts across town were adorned with all kinds of colorful paper flags, flowers, etc.
As a young boy, Santacruzan and Flores de Mayo were rituals that we did simply because we have done them for so long; they were rituals my entire town, and really the entire country, participated in annually. I never really had a reason to search for an explanation as to why we celebrated them.
Now that I am older, a long-time resident of the US, and a dad, I get nostalgic thinking about my childhood and my coming-of-age years in the Philippines, those summer months, and the excitement that the May festivities brought to my town. This is one of those moments where I find myself thinking, “I wish my kids experienced the fun things I experienced growing up in the Philippines!”
That wish is somehow getting fulfilled despite being 7,000 miles away from the Philippines. My teenage daughter will be participating in a Santacruzan procession sponsored by the Filipino community at a local parish in the Seattle Archdiocese. My kids are a lot more inquisitive than I used to be. I find myself needing to know what these Catholic rituals are about so that I am prepared to answer when they ask. It is my hope that my kids participate in these rituals with a deeper sense of what they are about, why Filipinos are so enthusiastic celebrating them, and the need for the next generations to preserve them. The Santacruzan is, after all, a ritual that was meant to teach and catechize the people. I hope that my American-born kids don’t just to go through the motions of the faith and our cultural traditions like I did as a child. It is my hope for them to truly understand and honor what they represent.
Santacruzan is a lot more than just a social event. It is more than an elaborate procession of young women in colorful dresses. Some people think that it’s a beauty pageant. For the Filipino people, this ritual, which has been held in the Philippines since the 1800s, originated as a way to commemorate and to retell the story about how Queen Helena, or “Reyna Elena,” mother of Constantine the Great, found the Holy Cross. Constantine was the Roman emperor who converted to Christianity and is considered a key historical figure responsible for turning Christianity from being the persecuted minority to being the official state religion. Basically, Christianity as we know it today would not be the same if not for Constantine.
Queen Helena (Reyna Elena), his mother, became a zealous Christian herself. According to some accounts, she went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and uncovered the True Cross, the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified.
Santacruzan takes place in May, coincidentally with Flores De Mayo, a tradition in which devotees offer flowers to the Virgin Mary during the entire month. In the Philippines, devotees not only offer beautiful flowers, but they congregate to pray the rosary and get together for food and festivities. The young women don colorful dresses and process as queens, or “reynas”. Each of the queens represents a biblical female figure such as Judith, Ruth, and Noemi, or the theological virtues of faith (“Reyna Fe” — Queen Faith), hope (“Reyna Esperanza” — Queen Hope), and charity (“Reyna Caridad” — Queen Charity). The last queen in the procession represents Reyna Elena (Queen Helena). She carries a cross in her arms to represent her finding of the Holy Cross. She is usually escorted by a young man who represents Emperor Constantine.
As a kid, I treated the Santacruzan like a beauty pageant. But as a father of teenage girl participating in this tradition, and as an ever-curious Filipino Catholic in America, the traditions of Santacruzan and Flores de Mayo have a deeper meaning. Not only are these rituals creative ways to commemorate and catechize the people about this special event in the Church’s history, but also as a way to celebrate the depth of our Catholic faith as and the richness of our Filipino culture. Just like what the Simbang Gabi celebrations illustrated, it is through these festive and colorful cultural practices that the Filipinos find a way to share the joy of their faith.
BJ Gonzalvo, PhD, is a psychology researcher, author, and a regular contributor to Mind & Spirit Magazine where he writes about faith and psychology. His latest book is “Leadership Development Training with the Saints” (Hope & Life Press, 2018). He is currently collecting “kuwentos” (stories) of what it means to be Filipino and faithful in America. For more visit, Saintly Nest.