A Christmas Eve tradition and spectacle in Kawit, Cavite
In the early afternoon a day before Christmas, the whirlwind of decorating, events, shopping, reunions, rituals and whatnot, especially in urbanized areas such as Metro Manila, had relatively calmed down. The Christmas season has been most cherished by Filipinos through the years, characterized by a flurry of activities since the start of December and culminating in relative quiet on Christmas Eve, which is reserved for intimate gatherings of family and friends and time-honored traditions. The air, though, remains anticipatory and crisp.
About 25 kilometers south of Manila, in the town of Kawit in Cavite, the streets were almost empty and the quiet intermittently broken by marching bands. They had gathered one by one at the old Saint Mary Magdalene Parish Church and came already performing.
Just before dusk, a few blocks away, at the Freedom Park, a cluster of makeshift food stalls and tiangge had all opened, and people were strolling around, meeting up, chattering, eating and playing around the monument of the town’s most famous son, General Emilio Aguinaldo, the first president of the First Republic of the Philippines.
The park is nestled in the shadows of the Aguinaldo Shrine, the handsome ancestral mansion of Aguinaldo, first built in 1845 and reconstructed in 1849, where he declared the independence of the Philippines on June 12, 1898. Yearly, Kawit figures prominently in the national celebration of Independence Day. And here, Christmas is a grand celebration.
As the dark settled, the predominantly-white Aguinaldo Shrine was bathed in the brightest of colors, changing to the accompaniment of Christmas music. People gathered to watch and wait for the traditional float parade to pass by. Kawiteños celebrate Christmas Eve with the panunuluyan, and their version of the panunuluyan, called maytinis, differs from all else in the country. For one, there is its showiness.
The floats had gathered in Binakayan Kanluran. The barangay is near an area often called Junction, where traffic is usually busy being a main thoroughfare of cars going to Metro Manila and to other parts Cavite. A makeshift amusement park, the perya, had been set up at one corner for the season.
At the Aguinaldo Shrine and on the main street, the crowds had thickened, their eyes fixed on a bright, moving spot at the end of the street. The parade had started, and people became restless as it neared the shrine. Marshalls on motorcycles asked the spectators to give way, followed by men in gorilla and monster costumes, scaring and amusing the crowd, taking place of the payaso or clowns of yesteryears.
The floats came, one after another, richly decorated and bearing persons playing Biblical characters. Pulled by small vans and jeeps and brightly lit to show the costumes and sets, they depicted select scenes and characters from the Bible—from Adam and Eve of the Old Testament to the announcement of Jesus Christ’s birth in the New Testament. Each float was followed by a band of children called pastores, literally “shepherds,” costumed accordingly. Marching bands from all over the province were placed in between, playing Christmas tunes.
The floats made a brief stop at the shrine, where from the balcony a person read the stories and meanings of each float; and proceeded to go around parts of the town, ending at the church. Along the way, the parade got stalled and slowed down by crowds getting too near them, and by the float of Mary and Joseph, the most important, reenacting the search for lodging—stopping by three to four houses, asking for a place to stay and being turned away by the innkeepers, their exchanges all chanted with music from a marching band.
The origin of this fusion of pageantry and religious dramatization is unknown, but locals generally believe that the maytinis has been practiced for about three centuries now, starting with the establishment of the Saint Mary Magdalene Church, promulgated by Spanish missionaries stationed there to celebrate Christmas as well as to employ an effective way of evangelization.
Christianization of the Philippines started with the first European contact and then colonization in the 16th century, resulting in the predominance of Christianity, particularly Catholicism, in the country with about 90 percent of the present population professing to be Christians.
The spread of Christianity in Cavite started in a settlement now known as Kawit, being the first anchorage of the Spaniards in the province. It was then given the name Cavite el Viejo and was changed to Kawit in 1907. Franciscan friars are said to be the first missionaries to administer Kawit, and these included Spanish friar Pedro Bautista or Peter Baptist Blasquez, who came to the Philippines in 1583 after being in Mexico. He spent nine years in the Spanish colony, where he built a hospital in 1591 in the seaport in Cavite, most likely, Kawit. He was then sent to Japan, where he was crucified with 26 others. They would eventually be known as the Martyrs of Japan, canonized as saints in 1862.
In 1624, Manila Archbishop Miguel Garcia Serrano commended Cavite el Viejo to the supervision of the Jesuits, who established the parish with Saint Maria Magdalena as patron saint, chosen, as anecdotes tell, because the seaport area had become known for prostitution. The Jesuits also built the first church, which was made of wood, in 1638 with the help of six Filipino families from the towns of Silang and Maragondon. The present stone church was built in 1737. The Jesuits administered the parish until 1768, after which the secular clergy took over. Then the church was placed under the Recollects in 1849.

From simple ritual to spectacle
Along the way, most likely in the early years of Kawit’s Christianization, Christian celebrations, such as Christmas, were also brought in, and the celebrations were also made avenues for Christian education of the locals, employing different mediums that have become part of local culture.
“Spanish colonization brought with it, along with all the other cultural changes, Spanish drama forms. The earliest to establish itself was the religious drama, an obvious and powerful way to teach religion, being aural, visual and participatory,” wrote the late food writer, cultural researcher and professor Doreen G. Fernandez in her book Palabas: Essays on Philippine Theater History (Ateneo de Manila University Press, Quezon City, 1996). “Soon, the Filipino’s year came to follow the liturgical calendar, marked by osana, sinakulo, salubong, and the like at Holy Week; in May by santakrusan and tibag to celebrate the finding of the Holy Cross, and Flores de Mayo and other similar observances to honor the feasts or attributes of Mary; by pangangaluluwa on All Souls’ Day in November; and by panunuluyan and pastores and tatlong hari at Christmastime; and by various other dramas and dramatizations designed by parish priests and their assistants or by the fertile folk imagination.”
Fernandez classified these religious dramatizations into two, according to length: The full-length dramas that include the sinakulo, and the short dramatizations like the salubong and panunuluyan.
The panunuluyan (literally, “search for shelter”), also called panuluyan, pananawagan and pananapatan, is most known to be held by the Tagalogs of Central and Southern Luzon but in recent years has mostly vanished, especially in urbanized communities. Several parts of the Bicol Region in southeastern Luzon Island have a similar practice called kagharong or kagharong-harong.
“The Panunuluyan is the Philippine version of a Mexican Christmas tradition that dates back to the 16th century,” explained writer Alejandro R. Roces in “Panunuluyan: A Mexican Christmas in the Philippines,” part of his column “Roses and Thorns” in The Philippine Star (December, 18, 2007). “The las posadas, meaning ‘the inns,’ was first conceived by St. John of the Cross in 1580 as a processional version of the Holy Family’s journey to Bethlehem and subsequent search for lodging. Seven years later it was introduced in Mexico by Roman Catholic missionaries. From there, it rapidly spread through Latin America, and even to the Philippines via the galleon trade.”
The Mexican tradition is held for nine nights. “A candle-lit procession of neighborhood children and adults will journey to three pre-selected homes (representing inns) seeking shelter for Joseph and Mary,” Roces described. “The Holy Couple is usually represented by either two small statues or children. At the first two homes, the heartfelt request of Joseph for shelter is rejected; but at the third home the request is accepted, the doors to the home are flung open and the pilgrims are greeted by a table laid out with traditional Christmas fare. A communal celebration ensues, including a star-shaped piñata for the children and a hot beverage called ponche for adults. Each night this ritual is performed with the procession ending in different homes. On the ninth night, or noche buena, the pilgrims re-enact the birth of Christ in the final home.”

“In the Philippines, the Panunuluyan, meaning ‘looking for lodging,’ is celebrated on Christmas Eve,” he further wrote. “To begin the event, images of Mary and Joseph are wheeled from the church courtyard, usually accompanied by two singers. They journey to three or four homes that represent inns, sing their plight and request for shelter. The innkeepers, played by a choir, inform them that the inn is full. In the end, the Holy Couple returns to the Church for the Nativity and at the stroke of midnight appear at the altar amid great rejoicing.”
Kawiteños have transformed this simple ritual into a spectacle that is the maytinis. The origin of the name maytinis also cannot be ascertained, but it is assumed that it came from the Latin matins, evening prayers or nocturnal liturgy that ends at dawn. There are other Christmas Eve traditions that are also called maytinis. The maytinis of some towns and cities of Pampanga-San Fernando, Magalang, Mabalacat and Mexico-consists of a procession of images of saints, accompanied by colorful lanterns, some in the shape of a fish, the symbol of Jesus Christ and singing choirs. The Kawit maytinis is different by having live people on floats, instead of religious images on carrozas, performing and accompanying the panunuluyan reenactment.
The maytinis is organized and overseen by the Confradia de Sagrada Familia in coordination with the parish church. The religious lay organization chooses an Ama and an Ina (literally, “father and mother”) for the event, equivalent to the hermano mayor and hermana mayor of Philippine fiestas, who financially support and oversee the event.
In early December 2015, the Ama and Ina of the maytinis of the previous year bade farewell and new ones were proclaimed, most likely, signaling the start of the Christmas season in Kawit. Like the rest of the country, the Misa de Gallo (literally, Mass of the Rooster) or simbang gabi, the dawn masses, were celebrated for nine days, from Dec. 16 to 24.

Salvation depicted
On Dec. 24, marching bands assembled by the church by two in the afternoon, rehearsing and doing exhibitions before parading around the town. This signalled the start of the maytinis the way the diana signals the start of a fiesta celebration in some parts of the Philippines.
By 4 p.m., the floats were assembled in Binakayan Kanluran. Usually, the float parade starts at the church, with Liturgy of the Word and readings from the Bible officiated by the parish priest, but sometimes it also starts at the resident barangay of the current Ama or Ina. An hour later, the bands and the pastores gathered in Marulas. As the sun began to set, streaking the sky with vermillion and tangerine, the maytinis procession readied itself and began at 7 p.m. From Binakayan Kanluran, it went to Marulas, Kaingen, Wakas, Poblacion and the church.
There were 16 floats for this year, each one sponsored and created by the town’s barangays, civic organizations or private companies. A barangay can be designated the same float for several years.
As a whole, the floats depict the Christian salvation history starting from the commission of the Original Sin by Adam and Eve to the birth of Jesus Christ, who is promised to save mankind from sin.
At the head of the parade was surprisingly a non-religious float called “Inang Pilipinas” (Mother Philippines), which in previous years concluded the parade, an obviously recent and local addition. This emphasized the fact that the Philippines is the only predominantly Catholic nation in Asia, which is interpreted as having a special role in world salvation as expressed in its slogan “Ang Pilipinas ang Diyos ang pumili/Bansang Asya, kaligtasa’y ibahagi” (The Philippines God has chosen/To Asia, salvation is imparted). This is the only non-Biblical float this year. Other non-Biblical floats in maytinis history included the EDSA People’s Power Revolution-inspired one in 1986.
The following floats were inspired by the Bible, starting with “Adan at Eba” (Adam and Eve) with a fake tree lade with shiny red apples, showing the temptation and the entry of sin. “La Purisima Concepcion” (Conception Most Pure) told about the prophecy that a virgin birth will save the world from sin. Other floats were “Si Noe at ang Baha” (Noah and the Flood), showing a small model on the ark atop a mountain; Moises (Moses), holding the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments; “Haring David (King David), with his wives; “Haring Solomon” (King Solomon); “Si Ruth at si Noemi” (Ruth and Naomi), emphasizing respect for parents; “Samson at Delilah” (Samson and Delilah); “Infanta Judith,” a Deuterocanonical character in gladiator dress and bearing the severed head of Holofornes; “Reyna Ester” (Queen Esther); “Pagbati” (Annunciation), showing the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary; “Pagdalaw” (Visitation), enacting Mary’s visit to cousin Elizabeth; “Panuluyan” (Search for Inn), with Mary riding a donkey and Joseph; “Pagbabalita ng Anghel” (Tidings of the Angel), with an angel appearing to kids dressed as shepherds and bearing a banner saying “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” to announce the birth of Jesus Christ; and “Ang Pangako ng Diyos kay Zacarias” (God’s Promise to Zacariah),with an angel appearing to Zacariah to tell the news that he and his Elizabeth will have a child.
In recent years, the number of floats have averaged from 15 to 17. The exclusion and addition of floats are caused by a number of factors—from float sponsors not able to meet deadline to the desire to add new ideas. Additional floats can be non-religious. In 1986, a float was included inspired by the Edsa People Power revolution, which may have inspired the idea of having a fixed “patriotic” float such as the “Inang Pilipinas.” The floats on Abraham and Amos were absent in 2015. Some floats also changed the tableau of a character. The Moses float, for example, was previously depicted as “Ang Pagliligtas sa Sangggol na si Moises” (The Saving of Baby Moses) and the King David float was “David and Goliath.” In this process, the parade has grown to be bigger.
Writer Marla Yotoko Chorengel related in the book Pasko!: The Philippine Christmas (National Bookstore and Anvil Publishing, Pasig City, 1998) that the traditional floats were “Talang Maliwanag (Brilliant Star), Divina Pastora (Divine Shepherdess), Siete Archangeles (Seven Archangels) and Rosa Mistica (Mystic Rose).”
“In the late ’70s, these were eliminated and replaced by Prophet Amos, Abraham, Infanta Judith and Queen Esther,” she wrote. “Changes met with objections, resentment and controversy amongst the residents, but in time, lectures and seminars on why the move was made enlightened the people. Dissenters finally accepted the loss of the well-loved familiar images and welcomed the new participants and their relevance to the present Maytinis.”
With the number of floats, the designs of the floats and the costumes have, of course, changed, getting more elaborate or showier to excite the people.
Being folk endeavors, the depictions in the floats are not entirely historically accurate, but stylized according to folk sensibilities and popular culture, and thus riddled with anachronistic elements. The tableaux are a curious melange of designs and motifs culled from movies and illustrated books of Biblical stories, other folk dramatizations such as the sinakulo, and the people’s imagination and perception of a culture thousands of miles away and thousands of years in the past.
Tableaux of outdoors are filled with hills and mountains made of wood and paper, and lots of potted plants, while the indoors have Grecian and Neoclassical pillars and urns. The costumes also tend to be gaudy, especially on characters of royalty such as Queen Esther and King Solomon, not far from the santacruzan, a popular parade about the finding of the True Cross that has assumed the look of pageantry.
Often, as much as the floats, the persons playing the roles of the Biblical characters are also a source of spectacle. Traditionally, the players were picked from the townspeople. While this is still done, picking the good-looking ones, the organizers have also recently been getting models from the outside of the town. More the noticeable are the attractive boys, who play Adam, angels and kings, often in costumes that, in crafty ways show, their beauty. Often marginalized in main church affairs, gay expressions manifest in events that blend show and ceremony such as the maytinis and santacruzan, etc. and the more “creative” aspect of church operations such as choir management, and dressing and care of images. The eye-catching maytinis players have become a continuous source of delight and, to others, a distraction from the religiousness of the affair. While it is still overwhelming Hispanic-Filipino religious in nature, the event has become interesting and even charming with the blend of Filipino folk creative sensibilities and articulations of gay desire.

Tradition still alive
While the parade was going around the town, the church was in total dark, as if a theater readying for a show, but already brimming with people. The aged facade, relatively austere in its locally modified Baroque design and its palitada chipped off over the years to show bricks and stones, and the bell tower were outlined with Christmas lights.
As Mary and Joseph entered the church by past 10 in the evening, after being refused by “innkeepers” and their entourage of floats had drifted away to their keepers, the lights were switched on. Little angels and shepherds sang as they walked towards the altar, transformed into the belen, the Nativity scene. The church was festooned with pine branches and other Christmas decorations. The domed ceiling at the altar was painted cerulean with twinkling stars. Where the elaborate baroque retablo was placed was now a cave. As shepherds sang “Vamos a Belen,” angels led the couple to the cave, to the manger, and the curtains were drawn down. The curtains were drawn up to reveal the life-size statues of the Holy Family. The choir burst into songs, announcing the birth of Jesus Christ. The Misa de Aguinaldo (Mass of the Gift) then commenced, ending with churchgoers queuing up to pay respect to the infant Jesus, many kissing His feet.
Outside the church, food stalls were steaming to make puto bumbong and bibingka, most popular Filipino Christmas fares, particularly among the Tagalog and Pampangan. After the mass, parishioners went home for the traditional Noche Buena feast, shared among family members, friends or neighbors.
The maytinis have been much loved by many Kawiteños that they even brought the tradition with them. Kawiteños who have migrated to the United States, specifically in Southern California, yearly hold maytinis float parades in San Diego with a program of music and entertainment for about forty years now.
In Cavite, being just adjacent to Metro Manila, urbanization has been spreading, bringing along its myriad of influences, good and bad, and there are pockets of old traditions that are still in place even though changing with the times.
“The Philippine still very much rooted in religion and faith in spite of growing materialism and commercialism, and diminishing religious zeal,” noted Chorengel.