The Philippine calendar of public holidays this year includes the three days before Easter: Maundy Thursday to Black Saturday, the last declared as special non-working day. Those who go on vacation leave starting on Holy Monday, the last week of Lent becomes full immersion time on tatak Pinoy folk religious practices even while having fun in the countryside or on the beach in one’s coastal town, or enjoying the cooler clime of Baguio.
The Pinoy catholic opens his Semana Santa (Mahal na Araw) by attending the church services of Domingo (de) Ramos, or Palm Sunday, with a ramos or palaspas, artfully fashioned from the leaflets of a young coconut frond. In the San Antonio town of Zambales, people use the fronds of the palm-like pitogo plant found only in the rugged hills of the province, the Cycas zambalensis.
In some places, Palm Sunday rites include a procession of the image of Jesus on a donkey, or the parish priest himself rides a pony to the church, to re-enact the triumphal entry of Jesus to Jerusalem. In Malolos City, the women spread out their tapis or cloths on the path of the procession.
The church goer makes sure to have his/her palaspas blessed by the priest. This is brought home and tucked in a prominent house corner; the folk belief is that this can serve as protection against evil spirits. Some people burn part of it to mix with their folk medicine when they get sick.
One expects to hear chanting of the pasyon during the Mahal na Araw. This tradition dates back more than 300 years ago when Don Gaspar Aquino de Belen translated the Spanish passion of Christ by the Jesuit Fr. Tomas de Villacastin. Through time, it has been translated into the different dialects. Ilocanos, Pampangos and Tagalog have their own melodies for the long passion narrative from the Last Supper up to when Longinus was captured and killed after the resurrection of Christ, which soloists or groups take turn in chanting during a typical pabasa. The aral (lessons) that follow some narrative sections are also chanted. In recent years, young singers have been adapting popular tunes as alternate to the traditional melodies.
The Longinus story is the basis of the Moriones folk festival of Marinduque. He is the Roman centurion who pierced the side of the crucified Christ with his lance, and who would come to believe and proclaim that He is the son of God. In all the towns, masked Morions roam around during the Holy Week in search of Longinus. As part of the tourism program of the province, a town is selected each year where his capture and beheading is enacted on Easter Sunday.
The pasyon is also basically the structural framework of two other folk religious rituals: the sinakulo and the prusisyon.
The sinakulo is the theatrical presentation of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. In Paete, Laguna, a local theatre group called The Centurion Original has been mounting the sinakulo titled Martir sa Golgotha (Martyr of Golgotha) since 1975 at the town plaza. The first part is staged on Maundy Thursday, and second on Good Friday. I have seen the first one comprising episodes from the annunciation on the coming of John the Baptist and Jesus up to the Last Supper. The rest of the passion up to the crucifixion is shown on Good Friday.
The prusisyon (processions) in the Roman Catholic Church are held on Holy Wednesday and Good Friday. There are many places in Luzon like San Pablo City that are famous for their processions of antique images depicting characters and events in the passion of Christ. These images are either mounted on decorated carrozas or floats, or borne on the shoulders of devotees of particular images. In Paete, Laguna, there are two dramatized features in the procession: the images of Mary and then of Veronica meeting Jesus carrying the cross at certain stops along the way.
The focal point of the Good Friday procession is the Santo Entierro (holy burial), usually a glass case containing the image of the dead Christ. Of particular interest are the Santo Señor Sepulcro of Lucban, Quezon, and the Senyor Sepulcro of Paete, Laguna.
Lucban’s antique Christ image is said to be rich with parcels of land and a bank account to its name, and its jewels taken out of the bank vault for the Good Friday procession. The first time I saw it, I was in awe of the thick antique golden blanket covering the body.
Barefoot Lucban male devotees pull the carroza of the Santo Señor. Their frenzy is similar to those of the Black Nazarene of Quiapo on the first Saturday of January. The Santo Señor takes hours to get back to the church as the menfolk seem to be engaged in a tug-of-war as they try getting to the ropes tied in front and at the back of the carroza, thus slowing down the procession.
Paete’s faithful treat their Senyor Sepulcro like the way northern tribes in the Cordilleras did to the bodies of their dead centuries ago. The coincidences are rather strange: the seating and smoking rites of the dead and the woodcarving tradition of the Paete people and the Cordillera tribes spin some kind of ancient cultural thread between them.
Tradition has the antique Senyor image moved from its niche in the Roman Catholic Church to the home of the caretakers on Holy Wednesday morning. Said to be from Mexico, it has a dark head and disjointed arms and limbs. The women wipe the image with a mixture of lambanog and herbs, and then have it seated on an armchair inside a cubicle covered with several layers of bed sheets for the smoking ritual until mid-afternoon. After that, the image is laid in repose wearing a white gown and covered with a beautifully embellished maroon shroud before the faithful can pay homage.
Like in Lucban, it’s also the menfolk who attend to the Senyor. They carry the Santo Entierro on their shoulders, swaying as they move forward in rhythmic cadence.
All processions are usually led by the image of St. Peter with the rooster and key symbols. The last image is that of the Mater Dolorosa or the grieving Mary, usually followed by the women.
In many towns, a different procession takes place in the morning of Good Friday: flagellants and penitents carrying crosses in fulfillment of certain vows even if the church frowns on this folk religious practice.
Fr Pedro Chirino, SJ (1604) tells us how the early converts in Leyte, Bohol and Cavite practiced their new religion with fervor especially during the Holy Week. What stuns in his account is that even the children practiced penitensiya. He wrote that the early Pinoy Christians "were very careful in attending church and devout in confessing, especially during that first Lent; and showed great fervor in disciplining themselves, particularly during Holy Week; in the procession on that occasion there were many who scourged themselves until the blood came, and still others accompanied them, bearing four hundred lights, all preserving great silence and order."
In Barangay Cutod in Pampanga, where the penitensiya has gone to the extreme of crucifixion, there’s no silence and order but hoopla time for both domestic and foreign tourists.
The early bustle of Sabado de Gloria (Holy Saturday) ensues when the church bells come alive again having been mute since Maundy Thursday. Folk belief tells children to start jumping once they hear the bells so that they can grow faster and taller.
In coastal towns, people start filling up the beaches before sunrise. When taking a bath on Good Friday was still taboo, the cool morning waters could have felt so heavenly. Many families and high school classes usually hold reunion picnics on this last day of Lent.
The biggest celebration comes early on Easter Sunday. Those who do not wake up early dawn surely miss the rites of the salubong. The intended drama is Mary meeting her son who has risen from the dead, with an angel coming down from heaven to lift off her mourning veil, singing in great jubilation with a chorus of other angels, ‘He has risen, as He Himself said … alleluia!’
The folk ritual calls for two processions coming from opposite directions, one with the Mary image shrouded with a black veil, and the other with the Risen Christ in white garments. In some towns, the Mary procession is all-female, and the Christ procession is all-male.
In our town, a young girl or a boy soprano is hoisted as an angel inside a flower-like cover. She or he will lead the children’s choir in cheering up Mary and strewing flower petals as the two images meet. At one point, the big petals spread out to reveal the angel being brought down to remove Mary’s black veil.
The common folk find it ominous when the angel takes a long time in taking off the veil, more so if it slips from her hold and falls down. Otherwise, there’s loud cheering at the end, and the two images are brought inside the church for the Easter Sunday mass.
Yesterday, today and tomorrow, the Pinoy commemorates the passion and death of Jesus Christ in various folkways during the Holy Week: the artful palaspas, the marathon pabasa or pasyon, the theatrical sinakulo and the Moriones, the penitensiya, and the prusisyon of images; and his resurrection through the drama of the salubong on Easter Sunday.
Alongside these folk rituals, what should matter though is that the Pinoy Christian deepens his religious formation when he participates in the authentic commemoration of the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, of the crucifixion and death on Good Friday, of the Easter Vigil after sundown of Holy Saturday, and in the jubilant celebration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday.