In the laidback southern Philippine town of Dapitan, children, and even adults, always look forward to the annual celebration of the Marian month of May.
Every day during the month, parents, with their children in tow, gather inside their centuries-old church to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary with prayers, flowers, and songs.
The children dressed as angels would each carry letters adorned with flowers to form “AVE MARIA.” Others would carry the symbols of the moon, the sun, the star, and several other representations of the Blessed Mother.
The faithful would toss flowers on the aisle where the children would pass on their way to the altar while the choir sings “Ave Maria” in Spanish.
The coronavirus pandemic, however, threatened to disrupt the age-old religious tradition of the town when authorities banned mass gatherings.
“The first thing that came to my mind was how could we continue the people’s religious traditions during the lockdown,” said Father Patrick Calva Dalangin, pastor of the Parish of Saint James the Greater.
He said it would be a pity that the effort of the faithful, especially the children, to prepare for the celebration would come to nothing.
“It has become their masterpiece,” said the priest, adding that the children would decorate the altar of the Virgin Mary every day with flowers they gather around town.
The priest and the people of the town agreed to continue with the tradition, dubbed as “Flores de Mayo,” or “Flowers of May,” with “some adjustments and changes.”
“We decided to do it online,” said Father Dalangin. “It is quite sad because many children won’t be able to participate, but the tradition has to continue,” he said.
A few children who physically offer the flowers were allowed to come to the church while older devotees were tasked to recite the prayers and the singing of the “Ave Maria.”
Father Dalangin said they have to skip the cathechism, which was usually done before the flower offering, because of the quarantine restrictions.
Although the live streaming of the “Flores de Mayo” only reached those who have access to the internet, Father Dalangin believes that “these challenges will not weaken the faith of the people.”
He said the people of Dapitan have always displayed a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. “It won’t be diminished even in this pandemic.”
Rex Hamoy, a history professor in Dapitan, said the “Flores de Mayo” tradition of the town has been kept alive because of the “immense faith and religiosity” of the townsfolk.
“Dapitan is very conservative, and people have no reason to change these religious traditions, that’s why even up to now, we sing the “Ave Maria” song in Spanish,” he said.
Hamoy said one of the reasons why religious traditions “flourish and survive” in Dapitan is because its people are always proud of their being Catholics.
He said many of those who were born in Dapitan but who now work in other places “come back and spend a few days just to participate in the celebration of these religious traditions.”
Hamoy said Dapitan’s “Flores de Mayo” observance with its 15 symbols is unique.
“I never heard of other places that have 15 symbols. Normally, there are only seven symbols, which are the letters of AVE MARIA,” he said.
He said nobody in town can remember what all the symbols — the sun, the moon, and the anchor, among others — mean.
“But I am sure that all the symbols would be connected to Mary,” he said.
“The anchor could be a representation of the Our Lady of La Naval and the star symbolizes Mary as Maria Stella Maris,” said Hamoy.
He said the crescent moon represents Mary’s miraculous conception.
A crescent is seen under Mary’s feet in the painting of the Assumption in 1485 that signifies her “glory and victory over time and space.”
Hamoy believes that the first friars in the Philippines used the symbols as part of their catechism.
Since the early years of Christianity in the country, people in Dapitan have been singing the Ave Maria in Spanish, said Hamoy. “It was not changed,” he said.
It was said that during the time of the exile of national hero Jose Rizal in Dapitan between 1892 and 1896, the church musician transposed the music to a lower key so that more people would be able to sing.
Hamoy said the telling and retelling of the story behind Dapitan’s “Flores de Mayo” and its symbols “is one reason why our religious tradition continues to be alive.”
“We do not forget to pass our history and tradition to young people,” he said.
It is the reason, he said, that every month of May, “we give the children the responsibility to lead the Marian celebration.”