Every culture deals with death in a unique way that reflects their history and beliefs. Nepal celebrates Gai Jatra, Mexico celebrates the Day of the Dead, and the Philippines celebrates something called Undas or All Saints’ Day. Each celebration can show you something interesting and unique about the countries where these events take place.
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Familiarizing yourself with death in different cultures can help you learn more about your friends and family, and prepare you to participate in events such as these.
What is Undas in the Philippines?
Undas is a traditional celebration in the Philippines observed beginning on November 1. In many Catholic countries, such as Mexico, this same day is celebrated, and it’s called All Saints’ Day.
This is a day to remember deceased friends and family and is filled with unique traditions that help Filipinos celebrate those who have gone on before them.
The Philippines was a Spanish colony from the time of explorer Ferdinand Magellan in the 1500s up until the Philippine Revolution in 1898. While the Philippines is now under its own sovereign control, the ideas, customs, and traditions of the Spanish and the Roman Catholic church have been fully incorporated into Filipino society. One such tradition is the celebration of All Saints’ Day.
All Saints’ Day began in the Roman Catholic church as a way for people to honor their dead. In the Catholic tradition, recognized saints have their own memorial days such as St. Patrick’s Day and St. Valentine’s Day. However, regular people who died and were not canonized had no day for an observance. To provide a day where all saints could be recognized, remembered, and celebrated — including deceased family members that were not canonized — the Roman Catholic Church established All Saints’ Day.
Today, in each country where Roman Catholicism is established, there are two days dedicated to celebrating deceased family members — November 1, known as All Saints’ Day, and November 2, All Souls’ Day.
Originally, November 1 was a somber day meant for church attendance and participating in prayer for loved ones. Prayer is especially important for family members believed to be in purgatory and are waiting to enter heaven. November 2 was traditionally the day for celebration. Today, Undas in the Philippines mixes both somber and celebratory traditions into both November 1 and 2. Since the Philippines was originally a Spanish colony, the holiday is celebrated similarly to the ways Mexico celebrates All Saints’ Day.
Why do Filipino people celebrate this holiday?
More than 86 percent of the nation belongs to the Roman Catholic church, so you’ll see this day celebrated in every town across the country.
Filipino culture is very family-oriented, and All Saints’ Day is seen as a holiday tradition to gather with loved ones who are still living and to honor and remember those who have passed on. The day is seen as a time to celebrate loved ones and remember them as if they were feasting and celebrating alongside their living family members.
Where to celebrate
All Saints’ Day is celebrated in both the cemetery and the church. During the solemn part of All Saints’ Day, many attend Mass as a religious requirement. Filipino families go to Mass and other church services to remember their relatives, light a candle in their honor, and say prayers on their behalf.
All Saints’ Day is also celebrated in cemeteries. While many Westerners would feel awkward or uncomfortable spending time in a graveyard, the opposite can be said for those that celebrate Undas. In the Philippines, families gather around the gravemarkers of their loved ones and make it a family affair.
They lay blankets down and set up chairs, purchase or bring food, and make a day out of remembering their loved ones. Some families even choose to spend the night in the cemetery.
When is Undas Every Year?
Undas occurs on November 1 each year. If it lands on a Sunday, the celebration is observed on Monday. Here is when All Saints’ Day falls for the next five years.
- 2020: Sunday, Nov. 1
- 2021: Monday, Nov. 1
- 2022: Tuesday, Nov. 1
- 2023: Wednesday, Nov. 1
- 2024: Friday, Nov. 1
How Do You Celebrate Undas?
Undas is a family celebration filled with cherished traditions that the whole family can participate in. Cultural traditions and some superstitions feature prominently during this holiday.
Here are seven examples of rituals:
This translates into sharing meals with deceased loved ones. Similar to many cultures around the world, food will be left in bowls, plates, and cups on a family alter. This is so the spirits of the deceased can nourish themselves while visiting their relatives in the world.
Leaving out food for the ghosts and spirits of family members is practices nearly worldwide. It can be seen in celebrations such as the Hungry Ghost Festival celebrated throughout East Asia and Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico.
While some families may choose to leave out an assortment of food they have on hand, many families will prepare the favorite meals and foods of their departed family members.
Undas is an important celebration and many mothers and aunts prepare for this day well in advance by purchasing all the favorite foods of their departed husbands, fathers, and children. They spend the night before Undas tirelessly preparing all the dishes for the next day.
Feasting and celebrating
Undas is seen not only as a day to remember the dead in a solemn manner but for many, it is a day of feasting and celebration.
Families gather together and enjoy music, food, and quality time. They share memories of their departed relatives and eat meals their relatives enjoyed while living with them.
In addition to celebrating those who have gone before, All Saints’ Day, or Undas, is a day when the Catholic Church focuses on saying prayers for the departed. The rosary is also offered when praying for family members who have gone on ahead.
Some write the names of their loved ones in the Book of the Dead and pray a special prayer called the “Office of the Dead” on their behalf.
While food is set up for the deceased, numerous cemeteries and families frown upon the living eating any food. Depending on the family, some hold to the tradition that Undas is a solemn occasion and shouldn’t have a party atmosphere.
In addition to setting up altars for deceased relatives, families often take this time to clean the gravesite as well. They clear the area of weeds and overgrowth, and then graves are decorated with flowers, candles, and decorations.
Whether you’re visiting a cemetery on All Saints’ Day or simply visiting the gravesite of a loved one, according to Filipino tradition, stepping on a gravemarker is not only disrespectful to the dead but brings years of bad luck to the walker.
Going to church
After families spend time in the graveyard with their deceased loved ones and other friends, the entire community goes to their local church for Mass. This is a special time to pray for loved ones that have died and to remember their legacy.
Celebrating the Dead Brings Life
No matter what culture you’re in or what people you are part of, honoring the dead is a beautiful way to remember the lives of those that have come before. No matter how we celebrate, remembering our deceased relatives helps connect us to the people who have made us what we are, reminds us of our histories, and brings gratitude for the life we’ve been given.
If you get to be part of an Undas celebration, be sure to ask plenty of questions. Learn from your friends, celebrate with them, and take joy in learning about their traditions and those they have loved.
- Thomas, Amanda. “A Look at ‘Undas’: Observing All Saints’ Day in the Philippines.” Balay, Balay, October 30, 2017. balay.ph/undas-all-saints-day-philippines.
- Editors. “All Saints Day.” Public Holidays Global, Public Holidays, January 2020. publicholidays.ph/all-saints-day.
- Miller, Jack. “Religion in the Philippines.” Center for Global Education, Asia Society, January 2020. asiasociety.org/education/religion-philippines.
- Kavalhuna, Russ. “Halloween, All Saints’, All Souls’ Holidays.” Henry Ford News and Events, Henry Ford College, October 31, 2019. hfcc.edu/news/2019/halloween-all-saints-all-souls-holidays.