As a Protestant child growing up in Australia, I remember Easter as a fairly dull affair. The shops were shut for days, friends went away, and my mother always insisted we went to Church on Easter Day, so she had time to prepare lunch without a gaggle of kids underfoot – and of course to give the Easter bunny time to drop by and hide our Easter eggs in the garden. Hunting for eggs was fun, but Church was never wildly exciting for a bunch of rowdy kids, although we enjoyed belting out the Easter hymns at the tops of our voices.
In the Philippines, on the other hand, Holy Week is a frenzy of colour and celebration. Like all Filipino fiestas, food and drink, dance, music and prayer play equal parts. Many communities hold processions, pilgrimages, and passion plays, and stage crucifixions. While some say these religious traditions are fading, you can still discover a variety of events around Metro Manila and beyond.
Holy Week is possibly the most significant religious holiday for Christians in the Philippines, as Christmas loses the race to commercialism. Metro Manila empties as if by magic, as hundreds of thousands of workers head home to the provinces and local Manilanos head to the beaches. Roads to the airport are blocked with traffic jams that have become infamous, and those on the runway are worse. But the holiday mood is catching, and Filipino patience is notorious.
Apart from tiny East Timor, the Philippines is the only Christian nation in Asia and the majority of Filipinos – approximately 80% – are Roman Catholic, converted by almost three and a half centuries of Spanish rule who, after forcefully purging the Iberian Peninsula of Jews and Muslims, saw itself as the bulwark of Catholic purity, and came to save these remote islanders with Christianity.
Apparently the Filipinos showed an initial reluctance to accept this strange new religion, but were gradually won over by the more festive side of Catholicism. Cheerfully blending their original traditions and beliefs with those colourful rituals of the Catholic church they have taken it to their hearts and made it their own. Five hundred years later – and even after a century of American secularism – most Filipinos still have a strong and visible faith in Christian doctrine and values, that is nowhere more apparent than in their enthusiasm for Holy Week.
Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday, when parishioners bring palm fronds to the church to be blessed by the priests, before hanging them from doors and windows at home to ward off evil spirits.
Holy Wednesday (Miyérkules Santo) is the night of the Passion of Christ, the first procession for Holy Week. This is followed by Maundy Thursday and the Chrism Mass, in which parishioners join their parish priest for morning Mass in the Cathedral, and the various holy oils are blessed.
The Mass of the Institution of the Lord’s Supper is the last Mass before Easter. It includes a re-enactment of the washing of the apostles feet, and is followed by the procession of the Blessed Sacrement which is then placed on the Altar of Repose. “
The highlight of Good Friday is the procession of the Santo Entierro, a supine image of Christ’s body on a calandra or bier that processes though the town, followed by a retinue of ‘saints.’ Beware the traffic jams as a result of these lengthy processions. It once took us six hours to get back from Tagaytay, as the traffic tried to squeeze past the multitude of saints processing up the hill. To avoid a similar occurence this year, we stayed put in Manila, only wandering as far as the Fort to find dinner on Friday night, only to find High Street choc-a-block with locals, and they weren’t just looking for food. This holy week, Church Simplified mounted its sixth installation of the Stations of the Cross, an interactive art exhibit in the centre of High Street that attracted thousands.
Holy Saturday or Black Saturday is also a day of solemnity, ending in the Easter Vigil, celebrated into the night.
In contrast, Easter morning, or Paskò, is a joyous celebration. In Parañaque, for example, parishioners re-enact the reunion of Christ and his mother Mary after the Resurrection, at the dawn ceremony of Salubong. The Virgin Mary is dressed in black to symbolize the loss of her son. A girl dressed as an angel stands on a scaffold or is suspended in mid-air to sing the Regina Coeli, before dramatically removing the black veil to signify the end of Mary’s grieving. Balloons or doves are then released into the dawn sky. The Virgin, now ‘Our Lady of Joy’ is showered in confetti and flower petals accompanied by pealing bells and fireworks, and followed by the Easter Mass. After mass, locals dance the bati-bati, an original Parañaque welcome dance.
Highlights of Holy Week include:
The procession of the Black Nazarene occurs every Good Friday in Quaipo. This large wooden statue of a black Jesus was sculptured in Mexico during the era of the Galleon Trade, and landed miraculously on the beach at Manila Bay after a storm. The statue is carried through the narrow streets of Quaipo on the shoulders of male devotees, as thousands will try to touch the Nazarene for luck. It can get extremely crowded, but it is worth watching.
Still the most renowned Easter events, reported in news articles all over the world, are the various voluntary crucifixions, extreme displays of religious devotion by penitents. While the ritual is frowned on by church authorities, it still attracts thousands of tourists as devotees carry wooden crosses through town, before having nails driven though their hands and feet in remembrance of Christ’s final sacrifice. Meanwhile, others recreate the mediaeval practice of self-flagellation, to scourge away sins. These penitents strip from the waist up and walk barefoot, whipping themselves with ropes and broken pieces of glass attached with strings to bamboo sticks until the blood flows. It sounds a little gory for me, but apparently it’s a memorable experience! I may just stick to the streets of
Parañaque and see if I can find the dancers – as I have had no luck finding Easter eggs!
*Adapted from a article written for the April issue of Inklings and with thanks to Google images.