Tropical Harvest Festival
Fruity and Floral Homes
Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
Giant fruit and flowers adorn the houses. Children parade from house to house, collecting sweets. It’s all part of the Pahiya festival, celebrated every May by the people of the island of Lucban in the Philippines.
This exuberant celebration of the rice harvest, has its roots in pagan times, but is now dedicated to St Isidore, patron of farm workers.
ERIC PASQUIER travelled to Lucban to take part in the celebrations, which include the presentation of a buffalo to the home with the best decorations.
In the Philippines, the month of May is traditionally the month of renewal, rebirth and change. The season’s first raindrops fall on the thirsty fields, indicating harvest time. If the harvest was good, a collective sigh of relief can almost be heard at this sign of prosperity for the year to come. If the harvest is poor, on the other hand, prayer alone offers the only hope for better times to come in the future.
After long months of hard work, there is an almost visceral need among the country folk for distraction: the Philippines have a rich tradition of seasonal feasts. But nowhere among the islands is this spirit of festivity more intense, celebrated with more fervour than in Lucban.
Located in the province of Quezon, 150 kilometres south-west of Manila, the little town of Lucban is a maze of narrow streets clinging to the hills overlooking the electric-green fields of the rice paddy-fields. A thick, mist-shrouded forest rises between the cultivated fields and the volcanic mountains of the hinterland. Tucked into the lowlands of this grandiose natural scenery, Lucban, home to around 40,000, consists of little cement bungalows next to large colonial villas.
The majority of the houses have their own plots of land on which a small crop is grown by the family, providing small but welcome extra revenue. The people express their gratitude for this prosperity – as modest as it may be – with remarkable religious fervour.
Since time immemorial, the people have thanked the heavens for giving them this tropical paradise with elaborate celebrations. Following the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th Century, the local traditional effigy of the god of the harvest was replaced with the statue of Saint Isidore the farm labourer - in Western Christianity, he's the patron saint of farmers. Born in Madrid in the late twelfth century, Isidore was canonised in 1622 and his saint day (in Lucban as everywhere else) is 15th May.
So at the beginning of the rice harvest on 15th May, a life-size statue of Saint Isidore is the centrepiece of a long procession through the streets of Lucban. Here, Saint Isidore – or San Isidro as he’s known locally – is the link between the heavens and mankind and is celebrated in a festival that's a colourful mixture of Christian ritual and pagan exuberance.
Outside the beautiful 18th century Baroque church the crowd is densely packed around the statue, which is perched above them on his gilded pedestal. The feast of Pahiyas can begin.Weeks in advance, the inhabitants of the village prepare for the elaborate festivities to come: they harvest flowers and fruit, weave strands of palm leaves, and erect the bamboo structures that will support elaborate, colourful tapestries of fruit and vegetables.
A week before the big day, a local priest walks through the town and decides on the precise itinerary of the procession.
Every year it is different, in order that each house of the village might have its moment of glory when the procession passes in front. The effervescence of the moment spills over from the members of the houses on this year’s route: they call friends and distant family members to action, asking each to contribute something to a piece of folk art worthy of the great cause. The cost of decorating a single home for the feast of the Pahiyas can vary between four and eight hundred dollars per house. It goes without saying that the success of the feast depends on the reigning spirit of the community, as it would be impossible for a local family in this rural community to afford such successes on their own.
But here, nothing is too magnificent to express the earth and its fertility. Everyone plays his or her part, from the youngest children to the oldest members of the family, in a communal festivity that dates back as far as anyone here can remember. The celebration will be as ephemeral as it will be colourful and resplendent: some of the village men have spent hours in the forest, cutting long tubes of bamboo – to be attached to the façades of the houses as part of the structure that will support the heavy decoration of flowers and plants – or collecting the palm leaves that will be used to cover the roofs of the houses or the tobacco leaves that will line the windows of the houses in a wreath of green. Others have set off into the fields to gather fruits, vegetables and the first crops of the rice harvest – traditionally, the offering par excellence to the Gods of the past… In one house, nimble fingers are preparing little objects of bamboo, papier-mâché or “kipings” – an ancestral recipe that is said to have been born millennia ago: cakes of rice flour and rice dyed with natural colourings, placed on tree leaves, then steamed until they separate from their vegetal mould. After being dried and allowed to cool, they become translucent sheets used to create fantastic, elaborate and edible “sculptures”. The local children devour them with delight during the festivities.
The feast of the Pahiyas offers people the (equally-prized) opportunity to either display or consume the festival’s vegetal creations. The event attracts some 30,000 people every year: Filipinos from every province, but also Australians, Americans and Japanese, for example. A feast of colours and tastes as picturesque as it is unique.
Wearing their finest clothes, the villagers dance to the rhythm of the drums and behind the statue of San Isidro there is a procession of majorettes and clowns. All during the afternoon, cries of delight mingle with the sounds of music. As the sun begins to shed its last rays of tropical light over the highest crests of the surrounding hills, the sounds of the festivities gradually subside. The villagers have opened their homes to all present to share the abundant offerings; at the end of the day the festival – part celebration of local traditional art, part bazaar and carnival – leaves in its wake a community that is bound by the souvenir of a tremendous declaration of love for the earth.
The very next morning, Lucban will return to the calm and quiet of its rural daily life. The farmers will return to the fields to plough them for next year’s rice crop. With a little luck, a pinch perhaps of divine intervention and a wink of complicity in San Isidro’s benevolent eye, next year will be as fruitful as this one. Certainly no one can say for sure what the future will be, but is certain that the tenacious capacity of the human spirit to express itself through feasts of luxuriance such as this one, will transcend all obstacles, whatever their form, and the beauty of Pahiyas will bloom with the same exuberance next year.
Copyright © Eric Pasquier
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