By Yansi Murga
Stella Canlas grew up in Quezon City, the Philippines as the eldest of seven children now scattered across the globe. Three siblings are in North America, three in Australia, and one in the Philippines. Growing up, Stella had three aunts on her Dad’s side. However, they lived in the province and she very rarely saw or talked to them, especially because she did not speak their local dialect. On her mother’s side, she had only one uncle, her Tito Baby. But she grew up close to his wife, her Tita Lety, who was also her baptismal ninang or godmother.
Stella will always hold her Tita Lety close to her heart because, despite having ten children of her own and experiencing financial struggles, she was always kind, welcoming, and generous. Stella explains: “More than the food she would feed me, or the dresses she made for me, she was always a source of strength,” noting the many sacrifices she offered for her children. “Today, 9 of her 10 children are in the USA, a dream that she knew would be fulfilled, a result of sheer tenacity and unwavering faith in God.” Overall, Stella believes her Tita Lety “was quite an inspiration, a reflection of a strong, motivated and kind-hearted woman.”
Stella says that “in a close-knit family, the Filipino aunt is considered the second mother of one’s children” and adds that, “in most cases, parents, in their wills, bequeath their children to their sisters.” Additionally, as roughly 80% of the Philippine population practices Roman Catholicism, the Filipino aunt “is also, more often than not, the baptismal or confirmation godmother of the child.” In this way, the role of the Filipino aunt is often intertwined with the Catholic faith and traditions derived from Catholicism.
In her children’s own lives, there is one blood-related aunt, Stella’s sister Rose, but there are also four sister-in-laws, Cecile, Malu, Margarita, and Milagros, who are married to the brothers of Gerry, Stella’s husband. Rose, she says, was and is her children’s favorite tita and was a ninang at her daughter Jen’s wedding. Stella notes: “my children love her unconditionally. She is the epitome of an all-giving, complete aunt.” Her children are also very close to their uncles and aunt-in-law and least one or both of them were principal sponsors for the children’s weddings.
In Filipino weddings, ninangs and ninongs are principal sponsors, or godmothers and godfathers, respectively, who have close relationships to the wedding couple and are chosen by them to be a part of the wedding entourage. They are, of course, chosen to be official witnesses to the wedding, but their participation in the wedding is also symbolic of the support they have given, and will continue to give, to the couple in their marriage.
Ninangs & Ninongs, Wedding Sponsors
Stella’s own children followed the traditional Filipino wedding customs, with, for example, the groom’s family formally asking for the bride’s hand in marriage (the “pamanhikan”). Three out of her four children had traditional Filipino church weddings with both principal and secondary sponsors. The principal sponsors are chosen by the bride and groom and, as Stella’s daughter-in-law, Maia, says, they “tend to be the older AND wiser relatives who helped raise us or played a key role in our childhood formation.” For Stella’s children, the principal sponsors, or ninangs and ninongs, were aunts, uncles, and older friends in the Catholic community that they are all members of. For example, Maia and Geoff chose an aunt who played witness to the beginning of their courtship and an uncle who knew them both from a very young age. They, she says, “continue to be the pillars of guidance, even after 12 years of marriage.”
In these weddings there are also secondary sponsors, usually close friends of the bride and groom. For their own secondary sponsors, Maia and Geoff chose close friends who played a key role in the development of their relationship– “like the friend who knew that romance brewing before we even knew it!” she says. The secondary sponsors participate in the veil, cord, candle, and coin ceremonies and present these tokens to the marrying couple during the nuptial mass.
Each of these tokens is deeply symbolic with, for example, as Maia explains: “the laying of the veil and cord (“yugal“) to symbolize unity and strength, and presenting 13 coins “arrhae” as a symbol of future prosperity throughout the marriage.” Reflecting further on the importance of these objects in the ceremony, Maia says: “though some relatives were unable to physically be present at our wedding, their presence was felt by way of loaning these wedding tokens on our wedding day…and we hope they continue to be handed down in the family for generations to come and keep these traditions alive.”
Aunts are central
Upon being asked what the pivotal role that aunts played in her wedding was, Natasha, Stella’s other daughter-in-law, says: “I think praying for us really. That was and is what our sponsors are to us. Besides being a guide, they would send us anniversary greetings with scriptures/prayers.” Natasha adds: “they’re also of course great role models. Having been a flower[girl] at their own wedding 30+ years ago also serves as an inspiration/encouragement on lasting marriages.” In this way, it is clear that Filipino aunts play an integral role in the upbringing of their nieces and nephews and often continue to do so well into adulthood, as ninangs to them and their spouses. If anyone is interested in learning more about Filipino aunts and family traditions, below are some sources Stella suggests for doing so.