Growing up, the month of May was one we all distinctly remembered as a time of town fiestas and local traditions that families and communities celebrated with much gusto.
Essential to the traditional May festivities is the Flores de Mayo or Flores de Maria (Flowers of Mary). A Catholic tradition that was inherited from the Spanish colonial era, Flores de Mayo is a religious custom of dedicating the whole month of May to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Usually, in some towns across the archipelago, town fiestas coincide with the Flores de Mayo and are still much-awaited occasions for the community. Part of the festivities involves adorning the Church with floral blooms of the season. In fact, Flores de Mayo has since become part of Filipino culture and is associated with stories of youth, love and romance.
The May festivities, however, find a culmination in the centuries-old tradition of Santacruzan. The Santacruzan is a religious-historical beauty pageant, which depicts the finding of the Holy Cross by Queen Helena (or Reyna Elena) and her son, the newly converted emperor Constantine. Historical accounts narrate that after the Holy Cross was found in Jerusalem and brought back to Rome, there was a joyful celebration for thanksgiving among the people. Hence, the custom of Santacruzan emerged in historical significance. In the Philippines, nine days of novena prayer for the Holy Cross precedes the Santacruzan.
At the Santacruzan, the most beautiful maidens and most debonair young men in the town are chosen to take part in the pageant. Dressed in fine gowns and the jusi Barong Tagalog, the youthful ladies are escorted on mile long processions across town. To be hailed as e Reyna Elena is a sign that the young lady is considered the loveliest, and perhaps most popular maiden in town.
In carrozas adorned with flowers and buntings of all kinds, the whole caravan slowly makes its way across the town’s streets where thousands of people wait to be awed by the beautiful young men and ladies and to pay homage to the image of the Virgin Mary. Sometimes, there is a separate parade for children in the morning and the adults in the early evening. Either way, the whole entourage comes in their finest most colorful and shimmery ensembles.
During the Flores de Mayo, becoming the hermano or hermana mayor is a sought-after privilege and recognition bestowed by one’s community. Being one means that your neighbors and community have confidence in your leadership, and have entrusted you with the honor and responsibility of ensuring that the annual town fiesta would be as jovial and memorable as the last. To this day, the hermano mayor often labors a whole year prior to the fiesta, often raising much-needed funds, and planning a pageant that his or her town mates would remember for a lifetime.
Unique to our Spanish colonial heritage, the Flores de Mayo and Santacruzan are traditions that many city slickers have long missed out on. Amidst such busy lives, time-honored customs that bind town folks need to be rekindled and remembered. For it is in communal traditions that we, as a people, celebrate together that makes culture lasting and national identity meaningful.