Why “devils” take center stage in Aklan villages at Christmas
KALIBO, Aklan – Residents of Ibajay, in the western part of this province, are known for their religious devotion to the Baby Jesus or the Sto. Niño. But for a century, some people here take a break from godliness each December 28, surprising visitors and passers-by with expressions of their “dark side.”
Tapping into their personal “demon” fantasies, residents strut the streets in various shades of red, showing off horns and tails, and wielding pitchforks, axes and the makeshift death scythe.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to this annual rite called the Yawa-Yawa Festival – Yeah being the word for “devil” in most Visayan languages.
This time around, however, after a few weeks of zero cases and the province’s lifting of the ban on mass gatherings, subject to guarantees, a few residents ventured out on December 28 of this year.
The revelers, wearing masks depicting beasts and otherworldly creatures, sang and danced to a reused Aklanon-language Christmas song.
“Sa langit wala ang beer, mai walang sigarilyo beer,” they would sing.
(Heaven has no beer. When there is beer, there are no cigarettes.)
It’s Christmas with a Halloween twist, more of an adult trick or treat than a big parade. It’s like the yin to the yang of the Sto. The Niño festival celebrated each year in January, also known as Ati-Atihan, in a nod to the much older animist celebration of Aklan’s Aetas.
Ibajay’s feast is more intimate than the lavish, touristy mega-production of Kalibo. The Yawa-Yawa festival has the same quaint community atmosphere.
Not only do the locals channel their inner demons, their neighbors actually encourage antics and act out heartbreak and horror as the goblins steal laundry and household items.
The “thieves” return their loot in exchange for money or food gifts.
Behind the modern fun of Yawa-Yawa hides a strange interpretation of the Catholic Feast of the Holy Innocents, also celebrated on December 28.
The day commemorates the slaughter of children on the orders of Herod, the Jewish puppet king of the Romans.
The gospel of Matthew says that Herod’s response to the prophecy of a new king rising was to order the slaughter of all male babies under two around Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ. Jesus escaped when an angel warned his human guardian, Joseph, his mother’s husband, Mary, and the family fled to Egypt.
The late Rev. Emmanuele Mijares, originally from Ibajay, once told this author in an interview that the tradition comes from Barangay Maloco in Ibajay.
“The people there started a tradition in the 1900s when men dressed like evil creatures supposedly to ask their children not to be mean and to behave well. But the tradition has evolved into what it is now, ”he said in a 2019 interview.
Herod, in the Bible tale, did not care whether babies were nice or not.
The message of the Feast of the Innocents – Niños Inocentes – is in fact the opposite of what Mijares tells us about the origin of the feast. But 300 years of Spanish secular and clerical rule in the country are rife with misinterpretations that glorify authority.
“The Catholic Church does not encourage or condemn such an annual activity because it is considered a tradition and is a purely secular initiative.” Mijares said.
“What is discouraged by the Church is the practice of asking for a monetary reward. Also, the image of the Child Jesus or the Sto. Nino is not allowed to be used in the yawa-yawa tradition, ”he added.
Mijares also recalled an incident involving a group of men disguised as devils who stole a picture of the Baby Jesus and then demanded that the chapel pay a “ransom”.
But then, he said, “there were also those who collected money and donated it to the Church for the construction of their chapel in Barangay Maloco.”
Along with the Church’s ambivalence is the government’s reluctance to officially endorse the Yawa-Yawa festival.
In previous years, the festivities included groups stopping buses and cars on the national road to ask for food or money. Village officials then discouraged the practice after residents of other towns and tourists complained of children traumatized by revelers dressed as devils.
Nino Miko Delfin, a resident of Barangay Maloco, was six years old when his father paid the yawa-yawa a sum to “kidnap” him.
“The kidnappers then told me to behave and as I had promised to be kind, they then released me,” he said.
It might have been fun for the adults, but it scared the kid. Delfin also recalled that the men in devil clothes also took the three pesos he had in a pocket.
Blurring of lines of behavior ultimately led barangay officials in Argao, Malaysia to end the tradition in 2012.
After the locals wail, the two sides made compromises, leading to the rebirth of Yawa-Yawa but limiting it to street dancing. It didn’t quite fly and the festival died the following year.
In Ibajay, however, locals kept the party going, tempering it to avoid scaring strangers – and their own children. Concerns about the pandemic have also kept them from wandering through villages. Instead, neighbors come to their stations to watch the fantastic dances, songs, and costumes. – Rappler.com