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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Penitensya (Walk of Penance)
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.
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.
Credits to my photographer friends who let me post their photos: Andy Ungria and Chinggoy Futol.