Santacruzan: The Queen of All Filipino Festivals

santacruzanThe Santacruzan is known as the queen of all May-time festivals in the Philippines.   Perhaps this is because the Santacruzan is held every single year all over the country.  Replicated in various towns and cities, it is the highlight and culminating activity of the month-long Flores de Mayo.

Flores de Mayo, as its name implies, is celebrated in May and is done to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary.  This is the time of the year when rains begin to fall after a long, dry summer season and flowers start to bloom, their fragrance wafting in the air.

The Flores de Mayo was introduced by the colonizing Spaniards to the country centuries ago, during the colonization period.  Traditional practices for this month include people gathering in church every afternoon to offer prayers and flowers – usually ilang-ilang, sampaguita (local jasmine), and hibiscus – to the Virgin Mother.

The Santacruzan’s Religious Relevance

The Santacruzan may be known for the lavishly decorated floats and characters dressed in elaborate gowns and costumes during the procession, but there’s a deeply religious history behind these.  In fact, each reyna or queen represents some of Christendom’s most prominent figures.

Popular legend says that St. Helena (Reyna Elena), who is the mother of Constantine the Great, traveled to Calvary three centuries after the death of Jesus Christ to look for His cross.  At the crucifixion site, she found three crosses then asked her sick servant to lie down on them one by one.  The servant got cured after touching one of these crosses, and this cross was determined to be the one used by Christ.  In the Santacruzan, she is given the most prominent status and is accompanied by her son, Constantine.

Some characters tell a story.  Reyna Abogada, known as the protector of the oppressed and downtrodden, walks ahead of Reyna Sentenciada, the epitome of convicted innocents.  The aetas, symbolizing the pagan natives, and the Reyna Mora – representing Muslims and other religions before Christianity — march between Reyna Bandera, who represents the advent of Christianity and Reyna Fe, who symbolizes faith.

Other virtues are represented as well:

* Reyna Esperanza – Hope

* Reyna Caridad – Charity

* Reyna Justicia – Justice

While others trace their significance from history and the bible:

* Reyna Judith – Judith from Pethulia who rallied her city against the Assyrians

* Reyna Sheba – The woman visitor of King Solomon

* Reyna Esther – Represents the prophet Esther

* Veronica – The woman of the Shroud of Turin, the one who wiped Jesus’ bloody face.

* Tres Marias – or the Three Mary’s: the mothers of Jesus and James and Mary Magdalene.

* Samaritana – The woman Jesus speaks to at the well.

Some of them are purely symbolic, yet do not need further explanation, like the Ave Maria girls, the Divine Shepherdess, the Rosa Mystica and the Queen of Flowers.

The Prestige

During the Spanish period, priests would select sponsors, locally known as “hermanasantacruzan2s,” from women belonging to wealthy and reputable families.  It was deemed to be a great honor to be chosen as a  hermana.  So much so that many would vie for the chance to be one.  It is the hermana who gets to plan the festival, decorate the church and the “caroza” or the carriage used for the procession, and yes, handle the expenses and the budget.

The town’s young and prettiest ladies are handpicked to represent the various characters – called “sagalas” – and join in the procession.  Each lady or “reyna” is escorted by a young gentleman, and every pair march under a bamboo canopy decorated with flowers and held by two men.  The most awaited character is Reyna Elena, who, as earlier mentioned, represents St. Helena, escorted by a boy representing the young Constantine.

Catholic devotees join the procession and hold lit candles, recite the rosary, and sing songs of praise.  Customarily, after the night mass, the mayor of the town would host a dinner gathering.

The Santacruzan Today

It is but natural that a parade of queens should become the queen of all festivals, and that prestige and pageantry have carried on until today.  The Santacruzan has seen celebrities such as politicians and actors and actresses taking on the various characters in nationwide parades.  Even homosexual men have taken to dress up for the part.  Filipinos living abroad organize Filipino communities in the United States, Europe and other parts of the world to have their own Santacruzan.  And no dominantly Catholic town in the Philippines is complete without a Santacruzan during the month of May, or even outside of it.

No matter who the hermana is, or who the sagalas are, the Santacruzan remains to be a very vital fixture in Philippine culture.  And why not, you basically have a parade of the area’s prettiest glossing over the fact that it is teeming with religious significance and symbolism.


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