The Intricate Art of Palm Fronds, and the People Who Make Them

After two years of muted Lenten events amid the COVID-19 pandemic, vendors outside Manila's churches are happy to be back in business.

12 April 2022, 8:16am

At the crack of dawn on Palm Sunday, outside the walls of the Philippines’ Baclaran Church, in Metro Manila’s Parañaque City, groups of women, men, and children are busy weaving fresh palm fronds. They skillfully shape each one into crosses and other ornate designs, which are known locally as “palaspas.” Catholics observe Holy Week beginning on Palm Sunday, when devotees carry the palaspas to churches and have them blessed by priests.

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Pacita Andres hasn't had enough sleep for the past three days, yet she doesn’t feel the exhaustion. As long as there are palm fronds around her, Andres said she would weave them. She anticipated that the demand for palaspas this year would be huge, since COVID-19 restrictions have eased, allowing churches to open their doors to more people.

Pacita Andres tirelessly weaves palm fronds to sell to devotees outside the church on Palm Sunday. Photo: Alecs Ongcal

Vendors weave palm fronds outside the walls of Baclaran Church on Palm Sunday. Photo: Alecs Ongcal

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, churches in the Philippines were closed and religious activities were limited to online gatherings. Many families who earned a living around these churches were left to rely on cash assistance from the government. Andres sees this year’s Holy Week observation as an opportunity to make up for what her family of eight lost during the lockdown.    

“Life during lockdown was difficult,” Andres told VICE. “We just had to be resourceful. Thankfully, things are opening up now, and we’re able to sell things again. I hope this continues.”

Ronnel de Juan, Pacita Andres’ son, pulls a crate filled with palm fronds to sell to devotees. Photos: Alecs Ongcal

When she was young, Andres’ aunt would wake her up to catch the first mass in Baclaran Church and sell palaspas to devotees. As she got older, she was taught how to weave the palm fronds into different forms like crosses, flowers, animals, and other symbols. She enjoys making little hearts at the end of the braided stalk. Now 42, Andres is passing on the skill to her six children who have been helping her collect, weave, and sell the fronds that would jumpstart their savings for the year.

The cost of a palaspas has doubled since the pandemic, now selling for about a dollar. The rise in price was not determined by the prevailing pandemic, but by the cost of raw materials and other accessories they add to make one, vendors said. 

With only a few palm fronds left to sell, Ruben and Eugene Mandapat discuss where they can find fresh palm fronds to collect so they can meet buyers’ demand. Photo: Alecs Ongcal 

Ruben Mandapat, a church vendor who started selling palm fronds at 12 years old, said his palm frond suppliers from Quezon province were not able to deliver enough to meet the demand for the day. So, together with his sibling Eugene Mandapat, he climbed coconut trees in nearby Roxas Boulevard and other neighborhoods to collect fronds.

Carmela Carandang, 42, grew up near Baclaran Church, but she only started selling palaspas six years ago. Nearing Palm Sunday, she and her family would weave and sell palm fronds. Her daughter Marie works at a business outsourcing company but would skip work to help. They said their earnings from selling palaspas on Palm Sunday is higher than the daily rate in Marie’s day job.

Carmela Carandang weaves palm fronds outside her house on Palm Sunday. In a day, she can weave 100 to 150 palm fronds. Photo: Alecs Ongcal

Most of the families that live near Baclaran Church are dependent on devotees engaged in religious activities. On regular days, they sell water, flowers, candles, and even serve as parking attendants. 

For the palm frond weavers, the ease in pandemic quarantine restrictions and the opening of church doors are already blessings. They only pray that, like the promise of Easter at the end of a somber Holy Week of fasting, prayers, and sacrifice, things will get better soon. 

A priest blesses the palm fronds of churchgoers in Baclaran Church. Photo: Alecs Ongcal 

Follow Alecs Ongcal on Instagram.

Tagged:

Culture, Religion, Philippines, Manila, Catholic, Holy Week

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