Ginger Paws Outdoors

Experience Semana Santa in the Philippines

Last year, I spent my Semana Santa (Holy Week) in the UK with my family. It was really fun! There were different Ester Egg Hunt events like the one in Fairhaven Water Gardens, East of Norwich. I had a great time there, and we brought home a massive chocolate egg (or two). It was an amazing time and honestly, that was the first time I experienced an Easter Egg Hunt.

My husband asked me what are we, Filipinos, up to during Easter. He thought since the Philippines is a religious country, it is a very special day for us. Of course, big YES! However, we don’t have the Easter Bunny and all that hunting events. Well, maybe some places in the Philippines, especially in Manila do have happenings like this. But the typical Filipino observance of the Holy Week is a bit different from it.

First of all, not everyone in the Philippines commemorates the Lent season. Mostly, the Catholics do the activities that I will mention later. As what I’ve said on my blog last Christmas, there were more than 80% Catholics in this country. The religious customs and traditions that we carried on from hundreds of years were taught to us by the Spaniards who colonized us for centuries.

Now, let’s go into the activities during the Semana Santa!

Holy Week Blog Title 2

Ash Wednesday

This is not a part of the Holy Week, but it is the first day of the Lent. This is the time when believers start fasting. I remember when I was a kid, these were the times that we don’t eat meat every Fridays. Basically, people go to church and hear a mass service then attendees will be marked with a cross on their forehead using ashes.

 

Linggo ng Palaspas (Palm Sunday)

This is the first day of the Holy Week when families gather to church with their Palaspas (Palm). This is the commemoration of Filipinos when Christ entered Jerusalem while riding a donkey, and the people welcomed him with palms or tree branches waving in the air and celebrating.

Holy Week Palaspas

During Palm Sunday, Filipinos use coconut leaves, which were artistically folded in different designs and fashioned with ribbons or flowers. After the mass service, the vicar will bless the Palaspas with holy water. After that, the Palaspas must be kept inside the house or placed somewhere like a window. I remember when I was a kid, my grandmother said that it would protect us from lightning strikes when there’s a storm.

Semana Santa Palaspas

Semana Santa Palaspas

Palm Sunday

You can buy Palaspas in front of the church. They have different designs, too!

 

Fasting

Well, this depends on the person. But basically, as what I’ve said earlier, some people do not eat meat on Fridays, while some only start when the Holy Week begins. In addition, there are believers who really do some serious fasting like no food for the whole week.

 

Pabasa ng Pasyon (Reading of the Passion)

This is a ritual done by the Catholics where they will chant all the verses from the book of the passion of Christ. It could be an acapella or sometimes they use music to make it more appealing and not so boring. This has to be continuous until they finish the entire book. Readers (devotees) take turns because it has to be uninterrupted, and so they have to stay awake the whole night and sing. The duration can last for three consecutive days and nights. Some believers start it right after the Palm Sunday, some around the mid-week so they can finish it right before the 3 o’clock of Good Friday.

Pabasa ng Pasyon

Pabasa ng Pasyon

 

Alay Lakad

Lakad means walking in Filipino, and Alay Lakad is like a sacrificial walk of devotees for many miles just to get to a church. Thursday evening of the Holy Week, when followers start their journey. I tried it once, and I don’t know if I will do that again! Well, I do hiking too but the roads were packed with people that the cars can’t get through. And because of the severe traffic, I went home around 1 in the morning. Another disappointing matter was most of the followers were there not because of their faith, but only due to their peer. Most of them were youths who didn’t really know the true meaning of that event. They were loud like it was a festival but it was supposed to be silent and peaceful. Additionally, there were organizations that assist travelers and giving away free drinks and food.


 

Senakulo

From the Spanish term Cenaculo, this is like a theater play that portrays the Passion of Christ. Senakulista is the term for the actor who plays the role. There are different organizations that were devoted to doing this every year. Aside from depicting Christ’s life, there were plays that were related to the modern world, though all of them are inspirational and all about faith in God.

Holy Week Senakulo

Holy Week Senakulo

 

 

Visita Iglesia (Church Visits)

Another devotion of the Catholics during the Holy Week is visiting seven different churches right before the Good Friday. Churches are busy during the evening of Maundy Thursday until midnight. Some do it Good Friday’s morning and must finish right before 3 o’clock.

Divine Mercy Shrine

 

 

Prusisyon (Procession)

This is religious parade or procession that you will see most of the Holy Week. Statues portraying different events in the week like a Christ riding a donkey on a massive cart designed with Palaspas and distinctive flowers. On the other hand, it could be the carrying of the cross of Jesus with other statues of different saints and Mary, mother of Christ. And during the Easter Sunday, it is the statue of Christ’s resurrection. Devotees will walk in the procession with candles while praying. There’s also a marching band sometimes.

Prusisyon sa Semana Santa

Photo by Chinggoy Futol

Holy Week Procession

Photo by Chinggoy Futol

Semana Santa

Photo by Chinggoy Futol

 

Penitensya (Walk of Penance)

Penitensya in Kapitangan

One of the devotees doing the Penitensya in Kapitangan
Photo by Andy Ungria

Now, this is something that Filipinos and some foreigners wait for during the Holy Week! There are worshipers that go beyond the limit of their beliefs and willing to experience Christ’s agony and suffering, including the crucifixion. Yes, you read it right! In fact, there were places in Pampanga and Bulacan that do this lamentable reenactment of Christ’s sorrow. Though the Catholic church does not condemn nor permits such acts, there are devotees that still go through this to proclaim their faith and exhibit their repentance. You will see some that are doing this in the whole week or some just starts around Friday and at 3 o’clock they will be crucified by the other members. Yes, again, there are organizations arranging these events so everything will be in order when they execute the presentation. But don’t worry, they will not be killed; they will just crucify the man and then remove him afterward. It is exactly like a Senakulo which they play the exact event that had happened to Jesus with the execution of the literal suffering and pain.

Great places to stay at HomeAway

So far, these are the only things that I’ve observed during the Holy week. Oh, another thing that I noticed… the malls are closed during Fridays and Black Saturday! One thing you will notice when you visit the Philippines is that malls are everywhere! And these days are the only times they are shut down for the employees so that they can observe the Holy week too. Well, for the non-Catholics, it’s the best time for a holiday on the beach!

This might sound boring and too godly to someone not used to it, but Semana Santa is more than a religious occurrence; it has been a part of Philippine culture.

Holy Week Blog Title

 

Credits to my photographer friends who let me post their photos: Andy Ungria and Chinggoy Futol

About Gracie Gill

A hobbyist photographer enjoying her life through arts, music, traveling and getting fit. A proud crazy cat lady.

37 thoughts on “Experience Semana Santa in the Philippines

  1. Abhinav Singh

    Just yesterday I was suggesting Philippines to a friend. We are planning a trip here. Glad I stumbled upon your blog. I learnt a new side to this under rated country. I did not know about Semana Santa.

  2. Raghav - TickerEatsTheWorld

    Wonderful to know more about your culture and how you celebrate and then to see the similarities of how it is celebrated across the world. Although I am not well aware of all the events, it was great to see how the Holy Week progresses and different religious events take place and as you said that its more ingrained in the culture and not just a religious happening.

  3. Alice Chen

    It’s so interesting to see Catholic traditions in the East! I had no idea the proportion of Catholics was around 80% – wow. It looks like people really go all out around Easter. What an awesome experience to be a part of.

  4. Natalie

    How interesting! I’m familiar with some of these religious observations from the Catholic faith in the states, but others are new to me. We do not walk to churches here unless you are in the very big city and live downtown. Other than that….it sounds impossible! We love learning about the cultures of places we visit which makes the journey so much more fun. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Suma Shah

    A couple of my friends follow the fasting religiously during lent, some of them even switched to vegetarian for the entire duration. It was great to read about how Filipinos celebrate Semena Santa. However I have mixed feelings about the Walk of Penance, sounds scary.

  6. Judy

    wow what an insightful post!! I did not know about this festival and I certainly am in disbelief at the walk of penance! I’m unsure how to react if I saw that in the streets, such reenactments of pain and sorrow on a traditional holiday. Quite the eye opener indeed.

    1. Gracie Gill Post author

      For devotees, it is something very special to them. I hope next year I can go back the same season and cover the event of crucifixion (if I have the guts).

  7. Scenes From Nadine (Nadine Smith)

    I am one of those people who don’t really follow traditions, so I ate meat and I didn’t fast during Holy Week. I actually didn’t do anything in your list above, not even the Visita Iglesia. I did that once though, but it was so tiring! Haha! I could never watch a Penitensya! I ouldn’t be able to stomach it! I can’t believe people still do this, actually.

  8. Iza Abao

    We had a ‘pabasa’ last Maundy Thursday. This is our tradition but I do not participate. It is the tradition of my mother every year. My mother’s friends will gather at my parents’ house a day before the ‘pabasa’. They will wake up and start as early as 2 am. Then, they will be finished around 2 pm or 3 pm. It is really fast. I wonder why other ‘pabasa’ takes more than a day.

    1. Gracie Gill Post author

      I wonder too! I asked my friend who had their pabasa and she said it is because of the music. And when I went to a church around Friday morning, they said they do it over and over again until before 3 pm of Friday.

  9. Riely

    I am a practicing Catholic myself and so partake in many of these holy events during ‘holy week’ or Semana Santa. There are so many beautiful traditionally ceremonies during this time. I haven’t heard of the Alay Lakad over here in Canada, but I am sure there are those who participate in the walk. It’s too bad there were some loud individuals ruining the peaceful sacrificial walk. Thanks for sharing the experience of Philippines during Semena Santa.

  10. Lisa Peele @ Wonderling

    This is really interesting, I have literally never heard of this. Your pictures are stunning and really add to the context of this piece. I am visiting Manila in November, so will have to visit some of these places.

    1. Gracie Gill Post author

      I’m glad you will visit Manila! I could give you a tour, sadly I will be back in the UK by September. Anyways, I did a little tour in Manila as well and I will blog about where to go there.

  11. Author Brandi Kennedy

    Wow, I can’t believe there are people who go to be crucified – with respect to those who believe they must, I’m not sure I could stomach watching it. And on the other side of it … didn’t Jesus come so that WE don’t have to go through that?

    1. Gracie Gill Post author

      Same thought as well. But those devotees wanted to show their faith on a higher level. I couldn’t bear watching them as well! I had to ask a friend for that photo. But maybe one day, I could still watch one of them. Surprisingly, that practice was an attraction to some Westerners and got featured on an international tv!

  12. Agentszerozerosetter

    So beautiful and interesting to learn more about other country’s traditions! Glad to know that people really seems to feel the spirit of the celebration!

  13. Claudia Krusch

    These are some great photos. Semana Santa sounds like an amazing celebration. I love to learn about other cultures.

  14. David Elliott

    These are great things here. They look amazing and beautiful celebrations of the passion. I am pretty impressed by everything you have here. I know that I am not catholic but I am christian and we do it very differently.

  15. Elizabeth O.

    It’s amazing how the Philippines would observe the Holy Week. They are still very much intact with their traditions from way back. I love the dedication and the determination to do right by their religion.

  16. Carol Cassara

    I would love to witness this first hand. This tradition has been around for years and yet, it has not faltered, not like most of the traditions in other countries that have faded through time.

  17. rosey

    Great photos! my brother in law is philippine and although I don’t believe he celebrate semana santa he does do the whole bunny easter basket thing with my nephew.

  18. Cristina Leau

    Great photos. It really helps you understand the celebration better. It’s nice to learn something new.

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