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In the USA, religion is practiced freely. There’s not even an official religion in the country. Meanwhile, in the predominantly Catholic nation of the Philippines, days commemorating the religion are often observed as national holidays. If you happen to be in the country during these days, you get the chance to witness uniquely Filipino traditions during the Holy Week. Many of which may or may not be practiced anywhere else or even sanctioned by the Church itself. Younger generations take this long holiday as a chance to hit the beaches in the country. It is, after all, the summer months of March and April. Most towns still observe these Holy Week Filipino traditions.
Cross on Forehead
The religious traditions in the Philippines start during the Lenten season known as Kwaresma. This starts on Ash Wednesday, 40 days before Easter Sunday.
Similarly observed around the world, this is when Catholics commemorate Christ’s suffering and resurrection. Its name derived from the practice of placing the sign of the cross on the forehead with ash. Many Filipinos will be walking around with a cross on their foreheads. It’s almost a stigma to not have one. People will quiz you for not attending Mass.
Palm Sunday is the start of the Semana Santa or Holy Week. The day celebrates the arrival of Christ into Jerusalem.
You will see the streets and church entrances line up with pop-up stores of ornately arranged palm fronds or palaspas. In the US, the churches only use a strand of palm leaf that is, at times, folded into a cross. Filipino Catholics bring these palaspas to Mass for the priest to bless them.
Once blessed, Filipinos will bring the palaspas home and place them on altars, doorways, and windows. This signifies welcoming Christ into the home.
However, given the superstitious culture of Filipinos, many believe that the blessed palaspas deter evil spirits and misfortunes. Another custom is feeding pieces of blessed palaspas to roosters used in sabong or cockfighting.
The Filipino faithful visit seven churches to pray the Stations of the Cross. There is also a belief that you should make a wish if it’s your first visit to a church. Fortunately, there are plenty of beautiful churches in the Philippines to visit.
Restaurants that choose to open during this period has a Holy Week menu. Catholics stop eating meat, opting to eat fish, while the more devout ones fast by eating a completely liquid diet. Fish and chips is a famous go-to food for the Filipino Catholics during Semana Santa. Fortunately, the Philippines has a great selection of local seafood chows.
The country goes silent during the Holy Week. No TV or radio broadcasts. Most businesses are not open during this time. So, better stock up with food and necessities.
And the only sound you could hear is…
PabasaDevotees start chanting an old epic depicting the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the Reading of the Passion or simply, Pabasa.
Devotees usually gather in groups who take turns or shifts in chanting the verses. Sometimes chanted in a cappella or with musical accompaniments of the guitar or piano.
Note that it does not sound like a church choir or the singing of Gregorian monks. Most of the time, the chanting is loud as it is broadcasted live with microphones and speakers in the middle of neighborhoods. The singing style is similar to priest chants and pre-Hispanic ethnic songs combined.
Originally, it is intended for communal meditation and personal devotion. It has sadly transformed into a show with sponsors like politicians.
This ritual marathon is done continuously day and night for around 3 days. It usually ends by Good Friday.
Street processions will include devotees who self-flagellate. This is a very gory sight, so, be mindful of that if you have younglings with you. Truly, it’s a bloody mess. I have learned not to stand too close to the procession.
The Church discouraged this tradition but devotees still do this to express their faith and practice self-penance. These are reenactments of the torture and death of Jesus. While most of the flagellants hit their previously scored backs with bamboo whips, a few will have their feet and hands nailed to a wooden cross on top of the hill.
When in Manila, Tondo is the town to be in if you want to watch this unique Filipino Holy Week tradition. Outside of Manila, the provinces of Pampanga and Nueva Ecija, are famous for these flagellants.
The festival is named after the Moro soldiers who seeked and persecuted Longinus, the blind soldier who pierced Jesus and eventually became Christian.
Men and women wear costumes and masks similar to the Moors. The garbs are characterized by colorful Roman costumes, painted masks and helmets, and brightly colored tunics. During the parade, the Moors engage in antics to scare and surprise bystanders and children. The festival starts on Holy Monday until Easter Sunday.
Good Friday or Biyernes Santo commemorates the crucifixion and death of Christ. Religious figures are carried through the towns on top of carriages. Devotees veil the religious images and statues in black to mourn the death of Jesus. There is also the interment of Christ or Santo Entierro where a statue of dead Jesus encased in a floral glass box or bier is shown around town.
One superstition during Good Friday warns against getting hurt on the day. Any wounds you get on this day will never heal. Coincidentally, children are prohibited from playing during Good Friday. Jesus is dead. Bad things are more likely to happen.
Another superstitious Filipino tradition on this day is to not take a shower or bath from 3:00 PM until Easter Sunday.