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January was named for the Roman god Janus who has two faces - one in front, the other behind - and can thus come to stand for beginnings and endings or the confluence of opposing elements.
The Philippines fiesta calendar, true to Roman lore and popular idiom, starts off with two faces, two masks of ritual: one for the Feast of the Black Nazarene the other for the Ati-Atihan. Each by itself is a compelling spectacle of folk celebration; viewed together, they reflect the striking contrast in the Filipino psyche.
The Feast of the Black Nazarene is held in Quiapo, the brave and battered heart of powster Manila. Quiapo is the main artery where there is a massive traffic jam daily: where the din of vendors mingles with the noise of horns and metal rock blaring from record shops; where Manila's working class scrambles for a ride. Quiapo is the historic Plaza Miranda, the center where the promises of old time politics hang suspended, and where younger voices of protest have mobilized people to a cause.
Quiapo is also the church where old women who sell prayers for a living shuffle on their knees the length of the nave to the altar, It is from this church every ninth of January that the Nazarene procession spills out in a huge serpentine throng of unshod men, the members of Hijos de Nazarene, the exclusive fraternity of those who have been supposedly touched by divine hand. At the center of this religious orbit is the larger-than-life stature of Christ, an ebony figure of mournful mien crowned with thorns and forced on his knee by the weight of the cross he bears. The image, which rests on an ornate platform, is borne on the bare shoulders of the chosen hijos , to whom also belong the privilege of walking beside the image or maneuvering the ropes that serve to keep a semblance of order in the surging crowd.
What maintains the crowd yearly is the panata , a personal vow in which one promises to participate in the Nazarene procession in exchange for diving favor. One's vow is considered word of honor and maybe binding for life.
As the procession inches its way through Quiapo's small streets it gains a force of it's own. From a far, it resembles a tightly wound mass undulating toward a vortex. The male devotes throw themselves into the press to go beyond the ropes in the hope that they may scale the platform and stand one proud moment with Christ. These are jeepney drivers, construction workers. market vendors, sweepstakes sellers. The Nazarene's procession is the folk religion of these men of the sweatshops.
The women and old folk stay in the peripheries cradling a smaller version of the image: children follow, dressed in the Nazarene's clothes, a maroon robe sash.
Quiapo, on any, other day a heedless marketplace, opens it's arms and lets the procession through. And in the dark, in the glistening light of thousands of candles that accompany the processions, the tired, wordly-wise district becomes something more that itself.
January's other mask is unabashedly festive. It is after all for Ati-Atihan, the Filipino mardi gras, and that mean pure fun, the spirit of letting go that has a little use of the carpe diem urgency of the Brazilian model. The latter anticipants the lean, quitely simmering days of Lent. Ati_Atihan regales the bounty of harvest and the good life ahead. It's primal cry: Hala, bira! Enjoy!
Ati-Atihan starts on the third week of January and goes on for a full week turning the sleepy island-province of Aklan in the Visayas into a raucous dance floor. It is one of the truly syncretic Philippines fiestas, combining Christian elements with local legend. Folkatale has it that the first Ati-Atihan was held to celebrate the Barter of Panay (a cluster of islands including Aklan). Panay was given away by the Atis or Negritos, the island's aborigine settlers, to the seafaring Bronean datus in exchange for a golden salakot or native hat. Drums and dancing, which characterized the feast, attracted both parties which organized similar gatherings on occassions. The religious aspect of today's Ati-Atihan honors the Child Jesus, a throwback to traditions of the Catholic Church.
Ati-Atihan means to make like the Ati. Thus participants liberally paint themselves with shiny black soot, don all manner of tribal finery complete with spears and shields. Others find the ideal occassion for putting on their secretly coveted roles, where the timid can wear the most outlandish costume replete with feathers and geegaws. The town macho can don a coututiers frilly creation and nobody bats an eyelash.
Because it provides the occasion for letting off steam in colorful style, the Ati-Atihan has grown from a local to national event. it has irresistible appeal to the free souls, the flower children at heart and westerners craving to go native.
The Nazarene's feast and Ati-Atihan are worlds apart. One is ponderious, fervid,sleless. The other looks forward. yet both, diametrically opposed as they are, appeal to Filipinos. The two festivals, each in its unique way, purge the native soul. One is catharsis by sacrifice. The other is catharsis by laughter. That Filipinos behave as most Westerners observe, like they do not have a lot to worry about. But the burden doesn't show, thanks to the Janus in thier soul.