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Sagada’s All Saints Day: Burning Pinewood for the Departed

Report: Christian Lizardo Aligo (Northern Informer)
Special Thanks: Misty Lodge and Cafe

SAGADA, Mt. Province- At four PM, All Saints Day mass at St. Mary the Virgin Church has already ended. Ten minutes later Sagada people started burning chops of pinewood in front of tombs, turning the cemetery into a smoky valley.

“It was like the middle of hell,” described Francois Kernin, 24. The French tourist said the festivity was impressive.

“I will definitely recommend it to my friends,” said Kernin.

At five in the evening, there seemed to be campfires in every corner of the cemetery.  When it started drizzling, locals rushed to burn their pinewood.

Before There Was All Saints Day in Sagada

Pinag-aapoy, a Kankanaey term that literally means season of burning, refers to All Saints Day in Sagada when people burn saeng (naturally-oiled pinewood that burns faster than any ordinary firewood) in the cemetery to warm the soul of their dead loved ones.

Before the coming of colonizers in Sagada, locals were completely animists. They believed they live with spirits of their dead loved ones whose remains were brought inside burial caves and hung on cliffs.

“Everything is done after completing a set of rituals prescribed for the dead, which we call Sengan Di Natey, so we did not have anniversaries or 40 Days,” shared Dr. Agnes S. Kollin, author of Dateline:Cordillera.

In his book Staunton of Sagada, American author Dr. Henry Scott described life in Sagada in 1900 as “simple in extreme”

 “Few vegetables were known; meat was enjoyed in the form of chickens and pigs at the time of religious sacrifices; and diet was varied seasonally by tiny fish and shellfish, snails, insects, mushrooms, berries, fruit and birds, with hunters occasionally taking a deer or wild boar,” wrote Scott.

Mixing Christianity and Sagada Traditions

Kollin narrated that during the Spanish Era, Aglipayan Church founder Gregorio Aglipay came to Christianize a southern village of Sagada, specifically Ambasing.

A journal owned by Americanmissionary Rev. John Staunton also revealed that Roman Catholic priests attempted to influence Sagada townsmen but failed.

Not until between 1903 and 1905 when a team of American missionaries led by Staunton of the Episcopal Church (Anglican) arrived in Sagada. The White men converted Sagada locals and successfully built St. Mary the Virgin Mission Compound in the center of the town.

Now, majority of Sagada people practice Anglicanism. However, Kollin pointed out that Anglicans in Sagada have also adapted the Rosary of the Mountains of the Aglipayan Church, and still observe animism-based traditions.

She scored that Sagada’s unique way of celebrating All Saints Day- the use of pinewood, was all Staunton’s idea.

“He made use of local materials in respect to what was available in Sagada then,” said Kollin.

She also divulged that Staunton tried to get vase wax candles from the Ilocos region so the new converts would have something to use during the next day’s All Souls Day mass.

Sagada people go to the cemetery late in the afternoon because there are lots of tasks to do in the morning, explained the anthropologist. Sagada people cook saliket, a sticky rice delicacy, and butcher chicken.

In the afternoon, they go to mass where names of the departed are read one by one. She added family members from far and near gather in Sagada for this occasion.

Reception From Locals and Tourists

The celebration is drawing wide media coverage. In fact a team from BBC, world’s largest broadcast firm, documented the event last year.

National and local media bodies, along with tourists, flock to Sagada to witness how the silent valley is turned into a smoky spot.

 “Na-preserve nila ang traditional nila kahit may available na kandila,” expressed Jennifer Pion, 39, a tourist from Manila.

Pion’s friend Michelle Coronel, 28, said she was fascinated with how locals commemorated the Christian holiday.

 “Sabay-sabay silang nagsunog,” pointed out Coronel.

Locals treat the occasion as a family event. “Gawis tay shan kaul-ulnungan tako di ay sinbaey (it’s good that the occasion serves as a family reunion for us), said Evelyn Pacolan, 35.

Melody Baldo, 26, shared that the light and warmth of the flaming pinewood acts as torch and warmer to the departed journeying to the heavens.

In recent years, the emitted dark smoke has also been a subject of debates whether or not to use candles and no longer pinewood. Despite this issue, locals still prefer lighting pinewood. This year, one bundle of saeng is bought at P150.

Kollin affirmed “there is no exact and perfect practice”. She cited how Sagada families almost mandate themselves to buy or raise sticky rice for the feast.

“We raise the rice and reserve it just for this occasion,” emphasized her.

When asked if there is something that needs to be changed, Kollin responded immediately: “I don’t think we should change anything. For as long as you can do it, do it.”

Christian is a Marketing Communications practitioner in Quezon City. He is an Igorot from Sagada, Mountain Province. To get in touch with him, please shoot an email to christianaligonow@gmail.com.


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