Today, Christians celebrate Easter: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
And specifically for Catholic Filipinos, this is a most blessed year as we celebrate 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines.
So let’s look back at what they ate 500 years ago, when Filipinos, specifically those in the island of Homonhon (it is said that this may be the site of the first and several other unrecorded holy masses) and in the island of Limasawa, where the first Easter mass took place.
Ferdinand Magellan and company were terribly desperate before coming to the Philippines.
Antonio Pigafetta recalled in his Chronicles how hungry they were:
“Wednesday, the 28th of November, 1520 … we entered into the Pacific sea, where we remained three months and 20 days without taking in provisions or other refreshments … We ate biscuit, which was no longer biscuit, but powder of biscuits, swarming with worms, and stank … strongly of the urine of rats. We drank yellow water that had been putrid for many days. We also ate some ox hides … which had become exceedingly hard because of the sun, rain and wind … often we ate sawdust from boards. Rats were sold for one-half ducado apiece and even then we could not get them. But above all misfortunes, the following was the worst. The gums of both the lower and upper teeth of some of our men swelled, so that they could not eat under any circumstances and therefore died. Nineteen men died from that sickness (scurvy). Twenty-five or 30 men fell sick in the arms, legs or in another place, so that but few remained well.”
Paradise in Homonhon
But lo and behold, on March 16, 1521, they finally saw paradise in the island of Homonhon. Landing on March 17, the natives welcomed them with a jar of uraca (palm wine or perhaps tuba), bananas and coconuts.
The next day, Datu Garas-Garas presented “two large jars of rice, a bamboo tube full of honey, pigs, fowls, fruits, vegetables including eggplants, and a gold headed truncheon, and another jar of tuba.”
On March 22, the natives returned with even more gifts: two boatloads of coconuts, sweet oranges, another jar of palm wine and a cock, among others.
A few days later, they moved to the Island of Limasawa where they were met with a feast.
Pigafetta chronicled the dinner served by Rajah Colambu: “Pork in its sauce served in porcelain platters, roasted fish with freshly gathered ginger, and rice; turtle eggs; chicken; and peacock.”
Historians also share that Rajah Siagu and Rajah Colambu entered into a peace pact with Magellan. The locals called the pact “casi casi,” the root word of which, “kasi,” means dear or friend.
Here’s the interesting part: The blood compact was done by incising their arms to extract droplets of blood that was then mixed with the wine (assumed to be pangasi or rice wine) for drinking.
Symbolically, it meant they were united by blood and therefore had the responsibility of helping each other as if they were siblings.
Freshly baked hosts
I also had the occasion of interviewing Fr. Johnrey Sibi, chair of the 500 Years of Christianity Celebrations in Limasawa, and Fr. Mark Vincent Salang, vice chair, and I wondered aloud how Fr. Pedro Valderrama, the diocesan priest aboard Magellan’s expedition could have maintained enough hosts (sacramental breads) throughout their long journey across the seas to still have enough for an Easter Sunday celebration.
Salang shared that perhaps the hosts were freshly baked especially for that Easter celebration. He said it was not difficult to make the host; that it was just flattened unleavened bread.
Might this have been the inspiration for piyaya, which rhymes with biyaya or blessing?
Sibi also took note of a local fruit that explorers were introduced to: breadfruit or “kolo.” This is unique to Limasawa and similar to langka or jackfruit.
Meanwhile, Salang shared his observation that in the Pigafetta chronicles, he documented the first “take home” in Philippine history. The natives were supposedly advised of the sacredness of the occasion, but in their eagerness to share their harvest, they instead found a way to deliver these to the visitors, sending over food to those on the boats.
Salang said this was perhaps the first “take home,” a truly Filipino culinary concept.
Truly, we are an Easter people.
In a way, it may be said that the Filipino people welcomed the greatest gift that Magellan’s expedition offered to us: the gift of Christ. It is no wonder that our forefathers were so eager to welcome Him with their best offerings.
And at the same time, inspired by the Spirit of Easter, Rajah Siagu and Rajah Colambu could not wait to share the good news. They told Magellan about Cebu and led him there for another most blessed historical moment: the first baptism in Philippine history.
Five hundred years later, we are still enjoying the gifts that the Magellan expedition offered: the gift of Christ, the gift of faith. May these gifts live on in our country and in our hearts, generation after generation, for the next 500 years and beyond.
Happy Easter and Happy Quincentennial to the faithful of the Philippines!
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