In defense of “extravagant” ritual feasts

The indigenous peoples of the Cordilleras invariably perform several rituals in the life cycle of an individual, from pregnancy until death, and most of the time even after death.

These rituals for the most part involve the slaughter of sacrificial animals, or what may be more appropriately called ritual animals. The type and number of ritual animals depends largely on the ritual itself, and the social status of the family for whom the ritual is performed. Thus a single chicken might suffice, or the ritual might involve the slaughter of several pigs. Some communities would require the slaughter of carabaos, cows or bulls, horses, or dogs. Ritual celebrations might last for a few hours, a day, or several days. And because there are several animals butchered, the entire villages, as well as friends and relatives from neighboring villages, are invited to partake of the feast.

(Photo: A carabao is prepared for cutting up prior to a wedding in Baguio.)

(Photo: Butchering one of two carabaos slaughtered.)

(Photo: Separating the meat to be distributed to those who participated during the slaughter.)

There are a variety of reasons for these ritual feasts. One of the most popularly known are celebrations of indigenous weddings. In many parts of Mountain Province, these weddings are scheduled during particular months of the year, mostly when there is a lull in the activities of the rice agricultural cycle. The reason for this schedule is that the village people would not be unduly disturbed when the wedding feasts are performed. For the same reason, the weddings were performed all at once, together. It was not uncommon to have more than a dozen couples wed at the same time, with celebrations on-going at different houses of a village, and gongs-a-plenty being played in melodious cacophony when several couples wed are neighbors.

The number of ritual animals prescribed as necessary for weddings were the same, and it involved feasts before, during and after the actual wedding. And since no animals are butchered for no ritual reason, this number may not be added to, so that the amount of meat may actually not be enough if the guests to the feast are many. However, if the meat cut up into small pieces still do not suffice, the guests would be as content to sip the stew or soup, and would be just as content in their participation. It was not an uncommon occurrence, since the pigs bred in earlier times were really small, and took several years to mature. The chickens were the same. Even if several pigs and chickens were slaughtered according to the rituals performed, there might not be enough for the assembled guests, and thus while it remains a feast, it would not be a feast of unnecessary extravagance, as indeed nothing is wasted, and sometimes the meat is not enough.

In latter times, this might have changed, since the pigs that we have now grow to gigantic sizes, and so the meat from a single pig now would exceed the meat from five pigs of the traditional variety. The number of required ritual animals have however remained the same, so that the amount of meat now available during feasts has significantly increased. Often, therefore, these ritual ceremonies truly satisfy the meaning of a “feast” in the sense that there is abundance of culinary delights. With our absorption of foreign influences, these feasts now include other delicacies as cakes and salads of all kinds, pasta preparations, candy, and many other purchasable whatnots to tickle our discriminating palates.

Many communities have also lifted the prohibition on the slaughter of animals more than those required by the rituals, so that in many cases, the hosts of these ritual feasts would butcher several more animals than ritually required.

These present-day realities might be the reason why there are more and more people who say that the old ritual ceremonies and the requirement of ritual animals are unnecessarily extravagant. Critics of traditional feasts say that these rituals unnecessarily strain the economic resources of those hosting the rituals, that these hosts are better off investing their resources rather than “wasting” these in “extravagant” feasts.

What is conveniently forgotten by these critics is that ritual feasts traditionally were graduated, that is, the number of ritual animals varies according to the social standing of the hosts, and with those relatively well-off expected to slaughter more, according to their status.  In a way, it was the communities’ way of redistributing wealth among the villagers, for the lesser-off are expected to slaughter less animals for the same ritual. Further, these rituals do not happen only at the behest of the hosts, but as an affirmation of the hosts’ belongingness to the community. It becomes their social obligation, and the rest of the community are expected to help in whatever way they can, either by “lending” mature animals, by helping in the preparations, and assisting in the different tasks during the ceremonies. In many rituals, too, people quite naturally help out by donating to the hosts, either in the form of their labor, rice and other foodstuffs, or by donating ritual animals. These donations are regulated only by the villagers’ ability to extend help and certainly not mandatory. Thus the ritual feasts are actually a culmination of the oneness of the community.

The success of a feast is more aptly measured by the cohesion and mutual-help systems of the village, and the number of guests during the feast.

(Photo: Part of the more than a thousand guests at the Baguio wedding.)

In weddings and wakes, guests are allowed to give donations in many forms. Of course, in older times, these were in the form of rice and other food, their physical labor and presence during the festivities, ritual animals, wine, and most anything else that might be needed. It encouraged the mutual-help systems that existed in those times. Family relations also figure prominently, with relatives, no matter how far removed, chipping in whatever they can to help.

Current times have not diminished the feeling of community and family relations in indigenous feasts. Rather, because we have become more affluent as we engaged in non-traditional economic endeavors, the gifts we give during these feasts have also gained affluence. Instead of the traditional rice and foodstuffs we donated to each other, the availability of cash has many of us giving cash donations during special feasts. It is arrogant for any of us to refuse whatever help our guests give us, for these guests are merely affirming their belongingness to the community, or our relations with them, or both. It is their way of saying that they are one with us.

With all the donations that our guests and the members of the family and community readily share, it is but natural that newly-weds, for instance, would not scrimp on the preparations, and provide the community with a feast worthy of their being counted as members of that same community.

The mutual-help systems, while they yet exist, are the reasons why our feasts continue to be relevant and practicable. When we lose these systems, then indeed feasts like the ones we hold now would really strain the economic resources of hosts, and would become truly unnecessarily extravagant.

Of course, critics of indigenous feasts might base their notions on their acquired religious biases, but that is another story.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: