How well do we really know our palaspas beyond Palm Sunday?
Everything we thought we knew about palaspas is a lie—at least it is in my case
Apr 12, 2019
As a child who’s a “spiritual but not religious” (whatever that means) Catholic, my parents do not impose strictly attending weekly masses. But there are a few observances which require us to wake up early to go to church: There’s the obligatory birthday mass before heading out to lunch; breaking dawn to misa de gallo masses; waking extra early to catch the first mass on Christmas day; and then there’s Palm Sunday.
I remember my lola dragging me out of bed just before 5 a.m. to get dressed just weeks after school vacation starts. We would go half an hour before the mass begins to get first dibs at the freshest golden palaspas peddled outside the church. It has all these twisted leaves and snipped tops decorated with ribbons. I would envy other churchgoers with their unique designs, and sometimes even the priest who has a gigantic palaspas.
Palaspas has come to remind me of early morning masses, crowding before the priest in the altar, waving golden fronds high as we can, eager for just a drop of Holy Water.
Going home, I have the task of holding the palaspas which used to be almost as big as me. I think they have shrunk some years after that or I just grew taller.
My lola would hang it on the door, while my mother who would usually attend the later mass would hang hers on the windows. They say it’s to ward off evil spirits.
Months would go by and the once glistening golden leaves of our palaspas would dry up and turn brown and then disappear. I always assume they threw it out. I have only found out through a colleague last month that old palaspas are donated to churches to be converted into ash used for Ash Wednesday. Then again this isn’t the only fact I had wrong about palaspas.
Palaspas have been used even before the country was Christianized, and not just for Palm Sunday
Palaspas scholar Elmer Nocheseda, in his book Palaspas: An Appreciation of Palm Leaf Art in the Philippines, tries to pinpoint the origins of the decorative palm fronds. He was able to find lots of literature relating to it, although nothing specifically reveals how the tradition of palaspas making began. One reason why this is the case is because much of it was already being done prior to the arrival of Spaniards and the Christianization of the country.
“It must have begun as early as when Filipinos first took notice of the varied and attractive palm fronds, so abundant in their environment, and begun creating something beautiful out of them,” Nocheseda speculated.
One of the earliest accounts pertaining to palm fronds was by Magellan’s chronicler Antonio Pigafetta. During the first baptism in the Philippines in the 1500s, Pigafetta saw that the makeshift altars were decorated with palm leaves. A Franciscan missionary stationed in Nagcarlan, Laguna named Juan de Placencia attested to this. In his 1589 journals, he wrote describing a worship ritual that houses were adorned with “leaves of white palm, wrought into many designs.”
It was only when Christianity has spread when the Filipinos adopted the ritual of Domingo de Ramos, Nocheseda wrote, that we have started to associate palaspas* (a term coined even before Palm Sunday was an official observance locally) with the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
*It is also worth noting that even in his book, Nocheseda loosely uses the term palaspas to refer to both “the palm fronds and the embellishment using the fresh pliable palm leaves.”
No, palaspas makers don’t harvest and create palm fronds on the eve of Palm Sunday
While looking for possible sources on this story, we tried getting in touch with makers through sampaguita vendors, who, more often than not, end up peddling palaspas themselves. Much to our dismay, they said the makers who were from Laguna only create these woven palm leaves a day before Palm Sunday.
That made sense to us, and we admit we almost fell for that except on one morning, three days before Palm Sunday, on my usual commute route I chanced upon a crew of palaspas makers going about their business in their makeshift huts near Paco Church.
There I saw stacks of unbraided fronds in big woven baskets and people weaving leaves into intricate masterpieces. There I met Nanay Leonisa who said they have been going there to sell their crafts for years now. She said she along with the other artisans who are stationed in a quiet corner of Perdigon and Merced Streets all came from one barangay in the town of Luisiana, Laguna.
“We left for Manila in a rented jeepney last night around 8 p.m. and arrived here at 2 a.m.,” she said. She estimated that they brought along with them around a thousand fronds harvested last week which they have started to transform into palaspas as early as Thursday. They will have to sell all of it so they can conveniently commute home riding the bus, as Nanay Leonisa said renting a jeepney for a round-trip is more than they can afford.
She sells palaspas with lubid-lubid (rope), puso-puso (heart), and ribbon designs for P25 each. She also supplies them to other maglalako who will peddle them on the day of Linggo ng Palaspas.
Another seller composed of a family of magpapalaspas next to her stall sells their elesi and krus designs among many others for a cheaper price of P20. You can even have it for half the price if you buy in bulk.
Palaspas designs are deliberately made to signify symbolic metaphors
Silly little me always thought that palaspas makers create designs on a whim which might explain why some are so artistically woven together and more intricate than the others. My family was happy with those with heart-shaped handles; nevermind if they had beautiful stalks or not.
“The images expressed by the palaspas reflect simple everyday utilitarian objects as well as symbolic metaphors, just like the material from which it is made,” Nocheseda said. “In this way, palaspas becomes a leaf no more. It is now endowed with meaning and artistic charm.”
Nocheseda listed down patterns such as those found in nature, animals like bird, snake, frog, goat, shrimp, butterfly, and fish, and plants forms such as flowers, pineapple, and corn. In other uber-creative communities, they even make ones to depict the human form through shapes alluring to feet, breast, penis, and scrotum. If you ask me, anything is really possible given the pliability of palm. “The design created from palaspas is limited only by our imagination,” Nocheseda concludes.
Palaspas is inevitably part of our culture largely because of our religion. But if any of these facts are any indication, our preoccupation with coconut leaves have started far back. For me, palaspas has come to remind me of early morning masses, crowding before the priest in the altar, waving golden fronds high as we can, eager for just a drop of Holy Water; it’s going home carrying glistening stalks of palm and promptly pinning it on the doors and windows, and taking it out months later in its dried form whenever my mom suspects there’s a break-in. In the words of Liza Soberano, “you can’t get any more Filipino than that.”
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