Palm Sunday ushers in business for Philippine Holy Week

Palm leaves offers once a year opportunity to provide that little bit extra for low-income families
Palm Sunday ushers in business for Philippine Holy Week

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila blesses the "palaspas" people carry during the observance of Palm Sunday in 2016. (Photo by Angie de Silva)

The observance of Holy Week in the Philippines is not only an opportunity for Filipinos to showcase religious rituals, but also their artistry and business acumen.

Three days before Palm Sunday, men, women, and children travel from the province of Laguna for a once-a-year business opportunity in the Philippine capital Manila.

From the overloaded trucks, they bring out on the pavement, where they settle to work during the weekend, baskets and sacks filled with coconut palm fronds.

With hands moving swiftly, the fronds are clipped, twisted, formed into birds, flowers, hearts, lightning, swords, balls, birds, shrimps, and crosses.

The lowly coconut palms are turned into "something worthy for the Lord" called palaspas

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The tradition of weaving the palaspas from young coconut palm leaves, locally called ibus, dates back to the pre-Hispanic era

In a 1589 account, Franciscan Father Juan de Plasencia noted that Filipinos use "leaves of the white palm, wrought into many designs" to decorate lamps during festivities.

Similar uses of the palaspas have also been noted in non-Catholic ethnic groups. The Islamized Tausug tribe in Mindanao uses lightning-shaped palaspas as wedding decorations.

Catholics carry the palaspas in the early morning of Palm Sunday for priests to bless. The fronds are later taken home and placed on front doors or windows supposedly to ward off evil spirits.

A woman weaves coconut palm fronds into a "palaspas" outside a Catholic church in Manila days before Palm Sunday. (Photo by Angie de Silva)


The business of palaspas

One of those who make weaving palaspas an annual business is Fe dela Torre, a portly woman in her sixties who effortlessly work her shears on the leaves.

Fe and 20 of her neighbors took a three-hour ride from their village in the northern Laguna town of Famy to Manila days before Palm Sunday.

She has been selling " palaspas " for the last 30 years. She boasts that among the other makers and vendors from her village, she was the very first to "set up shop" in the capital.

Fe says she has hardly slept since she arrived in Manila. "If you rest, other vendors would edge you out," she said.

She expects to sell all her 600 palaspas bundles this year and bring home something for the family. 

While tearing portions of the leaves to make them appear like butterflies perched on flower stems, explains the business. 

Early in the week, Fe had to buy the palm fronds from farmers in her village. A bundle of eight to ten costs up to US$0.30, but she can make eight "palaspas" out of them.

She sells the "palaspas" from US$0.50 to US$5 each, depending on the size and shape.

"The business pays relatively well," she says, adding that she earns more than what she gets from her small eatery back in the village.

Aside from making money, Fe says she also appreciates its "spiritual aspect."


Added income for poor families

Rosario dela Torre, who says she is not related to Fe, comes from the town of Cavinti, also in Laguna province. She says she sells palaspas to earn additional income for the family.

Rosario, a mother of six, sells at a higher price near a university campus and a gated community where residents are not worried about the cost.

One early buyer asks Rosario for a discount, but she explains that she has to travel far and has to recoup the cost of transport. 

"The price of gasoline has gone up," explains Rosario.

Unlike Fe, getting materials for her palaspas is the least of her concerns. She has several coconut trees in her backyard. All she has to buy are the ribbons and the laces she uses to adorn her final product.

Sitting near Rosario outside the Church of the Risen Lord at the University of the Philippines campus, is Portia, a lady in her late fifties who works at the university.

Portia is clutching Pitogo leaves, a plant native to the Philippines whose fronds are smaller than coconut leaves.

She says she will put her palaspas on her door after it is blessed by the priest on Sunday. 

She, however, laments that while people use the palm fronds to welcome Jesus, "we were also the ones who crucified him."

Rosario and Fe, who call themselves, in jest, the palaspas ladies, are not bothered. They have to sell their palaspas or they will just go to waste.

They say that like Jesus, who rose from the dead after three days, they too have to go back to their families in the province after three days in Manila — Fe to tend to her small eatery and Rosario to weaving baskets.

They will have to wait for another year, for the next Holy Week, to get back to the capital and once again welcome the triumphant Jesus on Palm Sunday with their palaspas.

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