Filipino Holy Week Traditions


As one of the largest Catholic countries in Asia (86 percent of Filipinos are Catholic), we take pride in declaring our faith and observing our church traditions.

One of the Catholic traditions that Pinoys take time to commemorate is Semana Santa or Holy Week.

While the Christmas season is all about merrymaking, singing Christmas carols and attending Simbang Gabi to celebrate the birth of Jesus, Lent encourages us to commemorate and share in His passion, death and resurrection.

If you grew up in the Philippines, you know that Holy Week usually signals the start of the summer holidays. While some non-practicing Catholics take this opportunity to cool down and go to the beach, devout families partake in the church’s Lenten activities either in the city or in their provinces.
When we were kids, we participated in these customs to get in the good graces of our elders. Then we grew up realising that they have been embedded in our family’s traditions and it is up to us to continue the legacy or not.

The season of Lent starts on Ash Wednesday. It is considered a “holy day of obligation” (if you come from a devout Catholic family, you will know that it means you are required to go to Mass) and here in the Philippines, it is common to see people walking on the streets, going about their day with ash on their foreheads in the shape of a cross.

In the ensuing forty days, most Pinoys observe fasting and abstinence practices like not eating meat every Friday or giving up some luxuries until the end of Lenten season, which is Easter Sunday.

It is usually a quiet and personal affair until the last week of Lent or Semana Santa when the church gets busy with all its customs and traditions. Here are some practices you may have heard of, or even participated in:

Palm Sunday

Also called Passion Sunday, this signifies the start of the Holy Week.

Families flock to the church on the Sunday before Easter with their palm branches, to commemorate Jesus’ triumphant entry to Jerusalem. The palm branches are blessed during the mass and taken home, only to be offered to the church later for the next season of Lent (the palm branches are burned, and the ashes are used to mark the foreheads of the faithful).

Holy Monday and Holy Tuesday
It is business as usual in the city, as these are the last two full working days in the country before the Holy Week break.
But on the island of Marinduque, Holy Monday signifies the start of Moriones, a Lenten festival where men and women wear costumes, more like a very realistic imitation of the Roman soldiers who flogged Jesus Christ to death.

Holy Wednesday
It is usually the last working day of the week, when the roads are busy, and the bus stations are filled with travellers who want to go back to their provinces to take part in the religious traditions.
In some provinces, churches choose thirteen men of good repute in their community to portray the biblical story of Jesus washing the feet of his twelve apostles. It is then followed by a meal in the manner of The Last Supper at a prominent villager’s home.

Maundy Thursday
This is the start of the Easter Triduum, or the three-day season concluding Lent. Considered a public holiday, work is suspended, and malls are closed to allow the people to participate in the church’s Lenten activities.
For most Pinoys, this is the day to do the Visita Iglesia, where they carry out their annual panata (vow) of visiting seven churches (no matter how near or far) in one day. While in the church, they recite the Stations of the Cross. The 14 stations, or devotions focus on Jesus’ last day, beginning with his condemnation.

Good Friday
Pinoys have a flair for the dramatic, and when it comes to sharing Christ’s passion and suffering on the cross, some of us take it quite literally.
Good Friday traditions span from simple sacrifices such as not eating meat, participating in the senakulo (Passion play or Easter pageant) and joining the Lenten procession barefoot.
The hardcore devotees carry life-sized crosses on their shoulders while other participants flagellate their backs, remaining shirtless for the entire duration of the procession. The religious fanatics go to the extreme of getting themselves nailed on the cross (some Filipino men and women have been doing this brutal re-enactment for years), as a way of atoning for their sins.

The Catholic Church, however, discourages such graphic displays insisting that re-enacting Jesus Christ’s crucifixion is unnecessary and need not be emulated.
Before the day ends, all the crucifixes in church as well Mother Mary’s statues are covered with a black veil to signify mourning.

Black Saturday
The grieving continues. Merrymaking and eating meat are still frowned upon on this day. Even TV and radio stations go off-air or proceed with their special programming where the only shows allowed are the ones related to Lent or spirituality.

Easter Sunday
The last day of Holy Week, Easter Sunday marks the end of Lent and the beginning of Easter in the church calendar.
The celebration has become quite commercialised for kids (with Easter Egg hunts in malls and hotels), but not before the family have attended the Easter Mass.

During the first mass or dawn mass, churchgoers witness a staged production to commemorate the Resurrection – an “angel” (usually a small girl in costume) is suspended in mid-air as she lifts the veil on Mother Mary’s face signifying that the mourning has come to an end and Jesus is alive.

The black cloths are removed and replaced by white ones to signify that the Saviour has risen.

These traditions have been part of our history, the Philippines being one of the first countries in Asia to be converted into Christianity. Sadly, some of these traditions are fading away because of the lack of willing participants.
Whether you are a devout Catholic or a backsliding one, Lent is a time to pause, rest and reflect on all the sufferings you have encountered, but more importantly, to be thankful for the blessings and grace that you have received in the past year.

(Photo Credits: Juancho Adriano)

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