Pinoy New Year rituals and practices

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Wednesday, January 2, 2013


(Author’s note: This article expresses the writer’s ideas about how Filipinos celebrate New Year using anthropologic perspectives)

FIRST of all, allow me to greet everyone a prosperous New Year.

There are not many changes in the way Filipinos welcome the coming of the New Year: with loud bangs from firecrackers and colorful confetti and pyrotechnic displays that are believed to ward off malevolent beings and bad omens; the preparation of a special midnight dinner that includes round-shaped fruits thought to symbolize money and the long spaghettis and ‘pancit’ noodles that represent long life ahead at the dining table; and last but not the least, the practice of wearing polka-dotted shirts that reflect money as coins as well.

There are more to mention at staggering numbers with some variations to certain degrees. What is common is that these practices are believed to bring about good fortune and abundance for the incoming year.

DEC.29.2012
CAGAYAN DE ORO. This kid seems to enjoy celebrating the New Year with his "torotot" rather than greeting 2013 with firecrackers. (Joey P. Nacalaban)

The Philippines is a home to a host of cultures meshing each other as our unique history traces our ancestry from the Chinese, the Malays plus the several centuries of Spaniards’ rule that have significantly shaped and dominated our present-day practices, including those previously mentioned at the onset of this article.

Although these practices may seem too typical for most Filipinos that they have become self-explanatory and are often regarded by the less curious minds as a terminal topic, the otherwise is true in the realm of anthropology.

Anthropologic perspectives offer scientific explanations that would enable us to see these practices from a more objective and non-biased point-of-view. From there, we can better appreciate its implications to our daily living and draw rational generalizations and explanations as to why we do things -- even the most mundane including New Year rituals -- the way we do.

Let me begin with the anthropologic explanation as to why firecrackers and pyrotechnics are selling like pancakes on New Year.

As mentioned in my first paragraph, firecrackers are ignited to ward off ill-luck and evil beings.

Anthropologic literatures suggest that people believe that the loud explosions that these firecrackers create are displeasing to the ears of these negative beings and energies and thus they prefer somewhere else that is quite, cold, dark and lonely.

In anthropology, the practice of assigning human-like qualities, including emotions and preferences, what is pleasing and displeasing, to supernatural beings is a phenomenon called Euhemerism.

Understanding Euhemerism is important because from there, we can better educate the public about alternative ways of creating noise possibly mimicking the trembling thunder that of a firecracker minus its hazardous effects. After all, it’s the noise that the so-called negative beings are so allergic to.

Next point is about the tradition of serving round-shaped fruits and the lengthy spaghettis and noodles at the dinner table that symbolize abundance and long-life, respectively. Such practice is actually following the law of similarity under the principle of magic, which is defined as producing desired effects by manipulating or controlling the supernatural through ceremonies and rituals by the famed anthropologist Sir James Frazer.

Under the law of similarity, “like produces like” therefore the shape of the fruit which is round is believed to magically bring forth more coins or money in the coming months of the year. The same may hold true for the wearing of polka- dotted shirts.

Another point is that why do Filipinos practice these “folk beliefs” in tandem with their practiced faith -- Christianity, Islam, Hindu, etc… -- is actually explained in anthropology as syncretism: the blending of different but often contradicting belief systems.

An example of syncretism is how Catholics, despite of being forbidden by the Bible to practice ritualistic magic or any of its principles, they still do in the forms of wearing polka-dotted shirts or serving of round-shaped fruits. Is it not that almost all Filipinos would endure the trouble of lining up at the grocery or supermarket just to purchase the traditional yet overpriced 13 round fruits to be served at the dinner table in time for New Year?

My last point is that these practices may have social control functions. Let us begin with the firecrackers. According to the record of the Department of Health, in December of 2011, there were 713 reported cases of firecracker-related injuries in the Philippines. Again and again, we are reminded of the consequences of the use of unsafe, unregulated and of poor quality firecrackers. Secondly, we are reminded to be watchful over the activities of the young children who are among the most vulnerable population of firecracker-related injury.

Next, our tradition can be, to a certain degree, imposing and demanding that even the poor families are compelled to serve at their dining table the prescribed fruits by all means even if to do so would be impractical; that their absence would make the celebration of New Year incomplete or inconsistent with the so-called “norm”.

Lastly, the syncretic practice of most Filipinos is reflective of the degree of anxiety they experience for the coming year. Anthropologic literatures suggest that one of the functions of religious beliefs and practices, including faith and magic, are to reduce anxiety of the unknown: the year ahead is still uncertain and unfamiliar.

Personally, I believe we practice these New Year rituals as rites of passage. In fact, we wish to believe that New Year means new life and so the old and negative ways of the previous year must be surrendered for the sake of change for the betterment.

I am not prescribing how Filipinos should celebrate New Year; I am offering rational explanations that are predominantly cloaked under hood of tradition and ignorance.

(Comments may be sent to: polo.jurnalist@gmail.com or follow mw on Twitter at polo_socio)

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on January 03, 2013.

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