Honoring Mary with beauty, piety and fashion

Despite the seeming ‘commercialization,’ the Philippines' Santacruzan remains religious in spirit
Honoring Mary with beauty, piety and fashion

A woman, earlier chosen as Miss Tourism in a local pageant, joins the "Santacruzan" in honor of the Virgin Mary in a Manila suburb on May. 30. (Photo by Rob Reyes)

Every year, on May 30th, a long narrow alley in Mandaluyong in the Philippine capital Manila plays host to a show of fashion, beauty and piety in honor of the Virgin Mary.

People cheer as young ladies in glittering gowns walk like royalty under well-lit arches decorated with colorful ribbons, paper designs and flowers.

The Santacruzan is a traditional religious beauty pageant held in many Philippine cities, towns and villages to honor the Virgin Mary during the month of May.

In Mandaluyong's Star Street, the procession is preceded by a parade of life-size images of the Blessed Virgin Mary followed by the "beauty queens."

At the end of the procession is a cross surrounded by women who light the way with candles. 

Christopher Aquino, 32, makes sure that every participant and the carriages bearing religious images are in place. 

He has helped organize the event for the past eight years. With his friends, they look for girls to take part in the pageant weeks before the event. 

It started after the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and after the publication of Mariano Sevilla's translation of the devotional Flores de Maria or Flowers of Mary.

These beauty queens and the other young ladies called the sagalas march with different Marian titles during the procession to remember the search for the "True Cross" by Empress Helena, mother of the Roman emperor, Constantine the Great. 

The Santacruzan concludes the month-long observance of daily flower offerings to the Virgin Mary — Flores de Mayo. 

It first began after the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and after the publication of Mariano Sevilla's translation of the devotional Flores de Maria or Flowers of Mary.

Aquino said the Santacruzan gives young people the chance to show their creativity. It also allows members of the LGBT community to participate by organizing the event.

The annual pageant "is an expression of our devotion to the Cross and to Mother Mary," said Aquino, adding that they give emphasis to the procession of the images.

"This is not a fashion show, but a religious tradition," he said.

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Girls join as "sagalas" during the religious "Santacruzan" procession in Manila to remember the search of the "True Cross" by Queen Helena. (Photo by Rob Reyes)


Through the years, the tradition has, however, become an elaborate "parade of beauty, backless gowns or plunging necklines," noted Benedictine Sister Mary John Mananzan.

She said the Santacruzan may be a feature of Filipino culture "but I do not see much of a truly spiritual message in it." 

"It was originally meant to dramatize the legendary finding of the cross by St. Helena. In many instances, it has become like a beauty contest," she said. 

Bishop Jose Colin Mendoza Bagaforo of Kidapawan said he encourages a procession of saints instead of a Santacruzan in his diocese to culminate the Flores de Mayo.

He said the Santacruzan has become a "tourism promotion with emphasis to the parade of beauties."

Bishop Ruperto Santos of Balanga said Catholics should "not concentrate on the beautiful ladies" parading as queens and princesses but instead on the "virtues of the Virgin Mary."

He said Filipinos should revisit the real meaning of the finding of the cross and to "continue the life-procession towards heaven." 

Professor Jayeel Serrano Cornelio, a sociologist of religion, said the expression of piety in the Santacruzan celebration cannot be dismissed "just because of its extravagance."

He said for people who consider taking part in it as an expression of piety, "then it remains a legitimate expression of faith to the Divine."

"It is not their fault if the observance has become so elegant and excessive," said Cornelio.

However, he agreed that the Santacruzan has been "secularized and commercialized," even becoming a "status symbol” in some cases “where only the rich and famous can become part of it."

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