Holy week traditions and practices in the Philippines
This year, Holy Week is from 14 April, Palm Sunday to 19 April, Easter Sunday.
The roots of this predominately-Catholic nation can be traced back to the 1500s when western colonizers accidentally landed on Philippine soil. Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese leader who was then serving under the Spanish crown, bargained with Rajah Humabon, the leader of Cebu for trade materials and foreign lands. What resulted in their agreement, however, was the conversion of about 800 Filipinos into Christianity.
Since then Christianity or Catholicism has been ingrained in the Filipinos’ way of life. Holy Week is not just any other week. It is considered a serious event wherein the life, death, resurrection, and passion of Jesus Christ is re-lived and celebrated. These celebrations involve some of the most unique, sometimes taboo, practices that reflect the Filipinos’ devotion to their faith and ingenuity to keeping it alive.
It is important to know the days of the Holy week first because each Filipino tradition and custom is practiced differently on each day. These practices often remember events that occurred in Jesus’ life and death.
Palm Sunday is the start of Holy Week, and the day that commemorates Jesus’ re-entry into Jerusalem. People waved their large palm leaves to welcome Jesus and His disciples, as they entered the town.
Holy Monday and Tuesday serve as days for relaxation and reflection of the coming important days of the week. Most business establishments and government offices are still open on these days.
Spy Wednesday marks the day Judas Iscariot spied on Jesus while he was praying at the garden of Gethsemane, just before he decided to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.
Maundy Thursday commemorates the celebration of Jesus’ last supper with His disciples, the day before his death. On this day, Jesus also washed his disciples’ feet, including Judas’.
Good Friday Good Friday marks the day Jesus was tortured and forced to walk up Golgotha, the place of his crucifixion and death, which occurred at approximately 3 pm. Black Saturday – Where Jesus is already laid inside his tomb and is still considered dead.
Black Saturday is a day of silence and solemnity, as this was the day Jesus had been laid inside his tomb and was still considered dead.
Easter Sunday is the most important day of the week and the most joyous as well for it celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his triumph against sin.
Holy Week traditions and practices are generally the same for all regions, cities, and towns in the Philippines.
* Palaspas (palm leaves) Sunday is observed by Catholics in the Philippines every year. It is a festive event wherein Churchgoers raise their palm leaves into the air, waiting to be blessed by the presiding priest. When mass is finished, people take their newly blessed palm leaves home. Many attach them onto their windowsills and roofs. This is a Filipino belief that blessed palm can bring good fortune, as well as remove any negativity, in the household. Filipinos often keep the palm leaves till the next year.
* During Holy Monday, Tuesday, and Spy Wednesday, Filipinos often abstain from eating meat, and devout followers often go on a full liquid diet. Around this time, provinces like Marinduque celebrate the Moriones Festival. The Moriones festival is a weeklong event that commemorates the miracle of Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced the side of the crucified Jesus. Longinus was blind in one eye, and as blood gushed from Jesus’ body, a drop fell into his eye and restored his vision eventually making him a believer of Christ and an enemy of Rome. ‘Morion’ means mask, and was once a standard part of a Roman soldier’s helmet. Thus, colourful Roman costumes, painted masks and helmets characterize this uniquely Filipino festival. Apart from several morion parades, mask paintings, and processions, one of the most entertaining activities in the festival is a re-enactment of Longinus’ story. Longinus runs around town, hiding inside houses and markets, climbing trees and lampposts, losing himself in the crowds of tourists just to escape the morions pursuing him.This festival culminates on Easter Sunday.
* Sinakulo are Lenten plays narrating the life, suffering and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To present the entire story, plays are held each night beginning from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday.
* Holy Monday to Holy Wednesday also marks the beginning of the Pabasa (reading). Pabasa is one of the oldest traditions introduced by Spain, and one that has been well preserved especially in provinces. The pabasa refers to the reading or chanting of verses about Christ’s life and suffering. In many provinces, it is held continuously day and night sometimes for as long as three straight days. The pabasa ends on Maundy Thursday, the day when the washing of the feet is reenacted.
* On Maundy Thursday morning, there is no mass. Instead, priests go to see their archbishop who institutes the priesthood’s sacrament of ordination or their renewal of vows. The archbishop also blesses the three oils: Oil of the Sick, Oil of Catechumens, and Holy Chrism (used for baptism). In the afternoon, priests go back to their parishes and have the afternoon mass. During the mass, the washing of the feet is held. Priests invite those who want to be cleansed of their sins to have their feet dipped in holy water. Priests then humbly kneel and wash them. Afterwards, the Blessed Sacrament is moved to the side of the church, where vigils last until midnight.
* Visita Iglesia also occurs on Maundy Thursday. Introduced by the Spaniards, Filipinos practice this by visiting seven churches in one day. It is a Filipino tradition that when visiting a Church for the first time, one can make a wish as well!
* The main activity on Good Friday is the Seven Last Words, starting in churches from 12 noon and ending at 3 pm when Jesus died. Then there would be a three-act liturgy, and a procession of religious images at the end. The religious images are often veiled in black and carried through towns in carrozas (carriages). Its highlight would be the image of the dead Jesus. At 10 or 11pm there would be the Soledad Procession. The highlight of this procession would be the search of Jesus by the tres marias (Three Marias, referring to Maria Magdalena, the sinner turned saint; Maria Cleofe, mother of the apostle James the Younger; and Maria Jacobe, mother of the apostles James the Greater and John).
* In most regions, such as Davao and Bicol, Good Friday also serves as day of complete silence. Radios and televisions are turned off, and folks try to limit conversation
* Many Filipinos also participate in taboo practices during this day, which the Catholic Church prohibits and does not endorse. These include Penitensya or self-flagellations and crucifixions. Especially in the province of Pampanga, devotees re-enact Jesus’ suffering by having themselves nailed to crosses. This Kapampangan tradition began in 1955 after writer Ricardo Navarro came up with the play narrating Jesus’ story, and the actual crucifixions followed in 1962. Many also dress up as Jesus Christ, walking barefoot, and carrying life-size crosses around town for the entire day. In penitensya, hooded men whip their backs as a form of repentance for their sins. Thousands of locals and foreign tourists flock to see this extreme Filipino tradition every year.
* There are no activities on Saturday. Filipinos typically spend the day preparing for the night vigil leading up to Easter Sunday. Activity starts only at 10 pm with the blessing of the fire by the priest. This symbolizes passing from darkness to light. Next would be the Easter vigil mass, which is composed of several readings. People wait up to 12 midnight. Then there would Mass, ringing of bells, singing of alleluia, which signifies the resurrection of Jesus – back to joy. This continues until the Salubong.
* On Easter Sunday, Filipinos celebrate the Salubong, a 4 o’clock morning vigil commemorating the meeting of the Mary and the Risen Jesus. The image of Mary will be brought to the image of Christ at a local church, where people throw flower petals and sing songs of glory. Everyone is happy that Jesus is alive again, and families celebrate by preparing feasts (since fasting and abstinence is over, everyone can eat meat again!)
With the passing of time, more and more Filipinos celebrate Holy Week in less traditional ways. Many factors contribute to this, such as foreign influence and secularization. However, since Holy Week is also one of the longest holidays in the Philippines, many Filipinos just like to take advantage of the free time by spending it on local or overseas trips instead. Filipinos often hit the beaches of Boracay and Batangas for a nice and relaxing, getaway.
Because of western influences as well, some families are beginning to hold Easter egg hunts, wherein children search for Easter eggs made of chocolate. Most hotels in Metro Manila usually have afternoon activities like this on Easter Sunday.
There is no doubt that Filipinos take Holy Week seriously. The thousands of local and foreign tourists eager to watch them celebrate are proof of that. The traditions and practices may be unique and interesting, but Filipinos never forget that they are done out of devotion and love for God.