What All Saints Day, All Souls’ Day Mean to Filipinos, and a Bonus on Filipino Superstitions for Halloween

by Edwin Quinabo

The diaspora of Filipinos to the four corners of the globe helps to spread Filipino culture worldwide, but it takes work to keep some traditions thriving generationally as Filipinos settle in their new communities outside of the Philippines.

Amid the myriad of pressing concerns immigrants face like finding work and attaining citizenship – among the least on their minds is a risk of losing culture. As years pass and some cultural expressions go unpracticed, nostalgia could suddenly resurrect some of them, or apathy could lead some cultural practices to simply die off and be placed in the dustbin of “things that we used to do in the mother country.”

All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day
Fiedes Doctor says growing up her family celebrated the Filipino tradition of All Saints’ Day (Undas) on Nov. 1 and All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2.

In the Philippines, both are still fervently observed today, and both are designated special non-working holidays nationwide. Schools, government, and many businesses are closed for these important days.

But observing these holidays many grew up with in the Philippines for some reason hasn’t stuck for many Filipino immigrants in the U.S.

“I grew up in Ilocos Norte, Philippines and we did the typical All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day practice of visiting the tombs of loved ones. We would visit my late grandfather’s tomb, bring flowers, candles and food, and stay there for a while. After some time, we would visit other relatives’ tombs who have passed on. We would bring flowers and candles to place on the tombs. We did the same thing on both days,” Doctor said.

Since becoming a Protestant Christian Fely doesn’t observe these days anymore. “I changed my views about visiting someone’s graveyard.” But she says out of respect for her living loved ones here in Hawaii, she will on occasion accompany a loved one to visit the cemetery like on the deceased loved one’s birthday.

All Saints’ Day is known as Feast of All Saints. It is a Catholic solemnity celebration in honor of the saints of the Catholic Church, whether they are known or unknown. A feast day in the Catholic Church is a day that honors a saint or an event in the life of Christ. A saint’s feast day can be the day of their actual death, or a day assigned by the Church. Feast days are marked with special mention of the saint or prayers to that saint for intercessional help.

Feast days are solemnities, which are the highest rank of liturgical celebration. Examples of Feast Days include Jan. 1 Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, in April Easter Sunday, on May 18 the Ascension of the Lord.

All Souls’ Day is called the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. It’s a day of prayer and remembrance for the faithful departed, family and friends who’ve passed on. But also, for all the dead, especially those believed to be in purgatory (a realm between heaven and hell) to whom our prayers are believed to help them go to heaven.

Christianity or Catholicism was first brought to the Philippine islands by Spanish missionaries and settlers, who arrived in waves beginning in the early 16th century in Cebu by way of colonization. Compared to the Spanish colonial period, when Christianity was recognized as the state religion, the faith today is practiced in the context of a secular state. In 2020, it was estimated that 85.7 million Filipinos, or roughly 78.8% of the population are Catholics.

According to Pew Research Center, the Philippines is the third country with the largest Catholic population, behind Brazil and Mexico and ahead of the United States and Italy, rounding up the top five.

To some, the popularity of All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day reflects the vibrancy of the Catholic faith in a country. For example, in Mexico, their version of All Souls Day, el Dia de los Muertos, is also a holiday widely observed and celebrated with food brought to the cemetery to honor deceased loved ones like in the Philippines. But Mexico has an added tradition of holding Day of the Dead processions that have participants dressed in skeletal or skull costumes.

In the United States where Catholicism is not the dominant Christian church, All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day can be seen as macabre or paganistic. But Catholics in the Philippines emphasize that these holidays are less about death, but rather a celebration of life.

Beyond tradition, All Souls’ Day is a belief in the eternal nature of spirit
Gloria Casupang, Pearl City, is a second-generation Filipino whose parents hailed from Illocos Sur, Philippines. “I grew up in a staunch Catholic household and the two days have root in Catholicism. On All Saints’ Day we would light a candle and include a prayer for the saints and my deceased grandparents. But the real celebration was the next day, on All Souls’ Day,” said Casupang.

“On All Souls’ Day we would have a grand dinner and spread of Filipino desserts. We’d have a special prayer for my deceased grandparents who are buried in the Philippines so we wouldn’t celebrate the traditional way of going to the cemetery with our food,” said Casupang.

“But now that my parents have passed on, my family would meet up at Mililani cemetery where they’re buried either on All Saints’ Day or All Souls’ Day. We’d bring plate lunches, bring picnic blankets and chairs, spend quality time reminiscing of what life was like with our parents alive and close with prayers. I think our parents are happy that we’re carrying on this tradition.

“I think they feel honored that we take the time to celebrate them, one day completely dedicated them,” said Casupang. “I know I would appreciate it if the same would be done for me by my children. Yes, it’s about tradition, but it carries a very personal meaning of gratitude and acknowledgement that while in life, we’ve played a very meaningful role in someone’s life.”

Casupang said ultimately All Souls’ Day is about spirit. “There is a deeply spiritual belief behind these two days, one that says the spirit lives on beyond physical death and through our Lord Jesus Christ, we can have everlasting life. And when we are bringing food to the cemetery or just celebrating at home, we believe we are in actual communion with our departed loved ones, that they are here with us, enjoying our presence and hearing our stories and prayers. When you look at it this way, observing All Souls’ Day is bigger than just practicing tradition.

Filipinos hold value in spirituality and faith in God amid modernism
“What does this say about Filipinos? It reflects that we are a people who hold importance in spirituality and faith in God and the afterlife. Personally, All Souls’ Day is one of the most important days in the year because of this spiritual aspect. I think it speaks volumes that in the Philippines these two days are still designated as holidays. We see there that spirituality, or some could call it religion or Catholicism, remains a core value in our values system, despite the world trend toward secularism and modernism. This is special,” said Casupang.

The traditional Undas in the Philippines
All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day in the Philippines is commonly observed as one event known as the Undas.

Philippine studies professor Schedar Jocson said Undas came from Filipinos’ habit of making words shorter in the past. Undas means Dia de los Todos Santos or Ang Ibig Sabihin ay Day of All Saints,” Jocson said.

He said because some Filipinos weren’t able to learn Spanish, they would just shorten phrases. That’s how Undas stuck with the Filipino people.

Audie Alegre, Quezon City, Philippines, said Undas was like having “fiestas” in the cemeteries, punctuated by praying and singing. “In the old days we’d bring our guitars (bandurrias) for the full effect of music. In the 1980s and beyond, people started to bring karaokes. It’s really a celebratory occasion.”

He said food and native delicacies or desserts are brought along because they’d stay at the cemetery for hours. “It was like a reunion with our loved ones at the cemetery.”

Since Undas is actually a two-day celebration [Nov. 1 and 2], on the eve of All Souls’ Day, Alegre said they’d gather with young relatives and some elementary school boys and girls and visit houses singing youth songs from bands like the Beatles. “There were also a few small adult barrio groups roaming and singing Tagalog Undas songs.”

At the homes they’d visit, the owners of the homes would give out gift packs of usually Filipino desserts and candies like suman, kalamays, butsi.

On the second day, Alegre said a relative would host a lunch with “Pinoy folks’ favorites like menudo, adobo, pancit, dinuguan, and puto as pahabol – the old school belief that’s close to giving thanks, and this idea of what you sow, you reap with wisdom,” he said.

“In Manila, at these luncheons, invited guests would bring gifts to exchange with each other or for the youths or children. Typical gifts would include items like shirts, caps, umbrellas,” he said.

Alegre looks at the two-day marathon tradition with nostalgia. “Now, it seems like only November 1 is observed and there’s no more fiesta culture. It’s more like a get together at a relative’s house for lunch. Gone are the lengthy cooking rituals. Most of the food now is ordered from restaurants. I am an old school senior, and I prefer actual visitations and prayers at cemeteries,” said Alegre.

For some in the younger generation, the observance of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day has been downscaled and watered down to virtual group prayers and short virtual chats.

Alegre said whether it’s a luncheon or virtual event, Undas is still being preserved one way or another. And there are Filipinos who still practice the holidays the old traditional ways of celebrating at a cemetery with food and song.

Casupang says virtual observance is something that was probably created during Covid’s pre-vaccine days. “I prefer the old fashion way of in-person gatherings, but if young people are choosing some way to honor their departed loved ones, it’s okay with me.”

Practical approach to observing All Saints’ Day, All Soul’s Day
Philippines resident Bing Tomas says the modern virtual celebration of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days is being practical, something he himself considers. Tomas hasn’t gone as far as downgrading the event to virtual status, but he said they visit the cemetery to say a little prayer for their departed family a week before Nov. 1. “There’s less people and no traffic jam.”

On virtual celebrations, Doctor said, “I understand the disadvantages of virtual events, mainly that there is no real socialization; and yet, I also understand that we are coming out of Covid, which makes virtual events understandable if not necessary.”

In the U.S. Filipino Americans more commonly observe Halloween on Oct 31 instead of All Saints’ Day, but many also observe All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2).

Unlike All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day, which is not based on superstition, Filipinos insist, Halloween is. But there are other Filipinos who will say mythological Filipino creatures such as aswangs (vampires, ghouls that shape shift), kapre (tree giant), or dwendes (bad dwarfs) are real.

Alegres explains, In fact, their said existence is believed to be responsible for many of the big fruit trees – mango, atis, daimito, samploc – being cut down or burned in the provinces. These giant trees are believed to be dwelling places for these evil creatures.

The impact of superstition on these trees is said to be responsible for deforestation in some places which contributes to the loosening of soil that makes landslides more likely to occur.

In retaliation for these evil creatures’ dwelling places being taken away, the superstition is that they retaliate by bringing poor harvests.

Alegre said the superstition has a modern twist, explaining that at these new high-end villages, resorts and mega high rises, these evil creatures are the culprits in cases where death and illnesses occur there because of their lost habitat in the forests and countryside.

Casupang recalls when her father died at the fairly young age of 61, they had a post-funeral luncheon. “I don’t remember who told my mother at that luncheon that the giant avocado tree in front of our house was bad luck, suggesting that it could have contributed to my father dying young, but the day after my mom hired tree cutters to cut down the tree within the week.

“I didn’t understand why my mom would believe in such an absurd thing, especially since we loved that tree. Our family would have a year-round supply of large succulent avocados. And we all know how expensive avocado is.

“My mother didn’t tell us why the tree needed to be cut down except to say someone told her it was bad luck. Years later we found out from our aunty the superstition behind giant fruit trees, that they are believed to be dwelling places for evil creatures in Filipino folklore. I still think it was a mistake my mom got rid of our avocado tree because I don’t believe in that, but at least I finally understood the reason behind it,” said Casupang.

So, what can we do to protect us from these evil creatures? Alegre said the old folks encourage us to whisper a little prayer when passing over large trees or if you feel the presence of these creatures lurking. “And since their habitat has been disrupted, these creatures could be anywhere, even in the city, so goes the updated superstition,” said Alegre. “In essence, they’ve become more widespread and dangerous.” This is food for thought on Halloween.

As for All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, Casupang encourages Filipinos who’ve lost that tradition to consider trying it. “It’s not necessarily a serious or sad occasion. But that could be a part of it. Mostly, it’s a fun celebration of your deceased mom’s, dad’s, grandparents’, or spouse’s life. These days could signal the start of the festive holiday season, before what’s traditionally marked as the start, Thanksgiving Day. This makes the holiday season longer.

“Happy All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day to all,” said Casupang.

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