Holy Week Observance in The Philippines

The Holy Week or Semana Santa, is a yearly tradition that is observed religiously in the Philippines. The days comprising it are called mahal na araw or holy days. The week -long tradition is accompanied by various rituals and activities where people do their penance as they commemorate the passion and death of Christ.

The Semana Santa is usually celebrated on the 3rd week of April with Thursday until Saturday declared as non-working days. This year 2019, it starts with Maundy Thursday on April 18, Good Friday on April 19 and Black Saturday on April 20.

During this week, Filipinos make sure to go home to their provinces and spend time with their family. Transportation in between towns and cities becomes hectic at these times too. The government has implemented measures to ensure the safety of all passengers from regular security checks as well as medical assistance and ambulance on standby in bus terminals, ports, airports and other transport hubs.

The Holy Week officially starts on a Sunday and ends on the next Sunday. In between, various activities reenact the events that led to the death and resurrection of Christ. Practices signifying penance are also observed and encouraged including meditation, prayer, fasting and abstinence.

This is also the time when local food businesses offer special menu items just for the Lenten season.

Palm Sunday: Palaspas

The Semana Santa starts with Palm Sunday. On this day, streets near churches come alive with vendors selling woven palm leaves usually decorated with ribbons or flowers. These are called palaspas, used to reenact the arrival of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem.

An early morning mass is held where people have their palaspas blessed by the officiating priest. They bring the palaspas home and place these on the front door to ward off evil spirits. These are left on the front doors for the whole year until the next Palm Sunday when they will be replaced.

Mga Mahal na Araw: Pabasa

The days after Palm Sunday are also considered holy. Catholics consider these days as their time for prayer and reflection and part of this practice is not eating meat or even fasting. Making noise is discouraged and even children are prevented from engaging in noisy activities that could disrupt religious activities.

Pabasa or the reading of the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ is conducted during these days. This is not just a simple reading of the verses from the bible. Readers follow a particular melody or chant as they read the verses. The chanting is rather hard to follow too so most younger people are quite scared of participating in the pabasa. Thus, in most communities, elders are usually the ones who conduct the reading while the young ones listen and follow along thru the different sections of the story.

Families use this time as a sort of reunion to catch up on each other’s lives. Relatives who work in the city go home to their towns and provinces to participate in these activities. The whole community usually come together to the pabasa bringing food.

The pabasa usually lasts for 1 to 2 days so several families may take turns as the sponsor or host, providing food for the participants and guest with their family members helping to prepare the food and serving the readers and guests.

Maunday Thursday

Maundy Thursday is held in observance of the Last Supper which is reenacted in a mass. Designated participants play the roles of the apostles and of Christ, played by the officiating priest. They reenact the washing of the feet, the blessing of the bread and wine which symbolise the body and blood of Christ.

Visita Iglesia

The Visita Iglesia also starts on Maundy Thursday where people visit 7 different churches as a sign of their devotion. During this visit, they also complete the 14 Stations of the Cross with each church representing the different stations.

Chrism Mass

Some churches celebrate Chrism Mass during this day. Chrism Mass is an annual gathering of all clergies and is the day where priests renew the vows they made when they were ordained. The name comes from the name of the “consecrated oil”. The Oil of Chrism, the Holy Chrism or the Sanctum Chrisma is used in the sacraments of baptism, confirmations and the Holy Orders. It is also used to consecrate altars, patens, bells, chalices and is the water used for baptism.

Good Friday: Senakulo

Good Friday is the commemoration of the passion and death of Christ. This day includes activities such as the seven last words or Siete Palabras, the way of the cross or the Via Crucis, as well as street processions and stage plays reenacting the events known as the Senakulo.

The Senakulo is where devotees practice self-flagellation. Others even have themselves crucified for the reenactment of Christ’s crucifixion as a way of doing penance and a way to show their devotion for their faith. Devotees of the Black Nazarene also flock to Quiapo Church on this day to join the morning procession.

However, the church discourages self-flagellation and crucifixion as a way of doing penance not only because these activities could cause serious health problems, such as wound infections and tetanus, but also because there are other ways to do penance without physical mortification.

Everyone tries their best to go about their daily tasks without making noise. Praying instead of engaging in play are strongly enforced until Black Saturday, especially on children. They are also told to avoid being wounded during these days as it is believed that wounds acquired on this day will take longer to heal or may not heal at all.

Throughout the week, regular television programs are replaced by movies that tell the story of Jesus Christ. Mass and prayers are also broadcasted in the morning and afternoon. The Siete Palabras is usually the highlight of all TV stations during Good Friday.

Black Saturday: Sabado de Gloria

This day is considered a day of silence and solemnity as this is the day when Christ’s mortal body has died on the cross and is buried. In some households, the day is spent in prayer and any form of entertainment is prohibited.

Since this is also the day before Christ’s resurrection, people also prepare for the next day’s activities. The church dresses up the image of the Virgin Mary in black to signify her mourning for the death of her son. The image of the risen Christ is also prepared for the next day’s procession.

Easter Sunday: Salubong

Salubong or meeting is the day when the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ finally see each other again after he is resurrected. The procession starts at dawn with two different groups starting from two different points. One group carries the image of the risen Christ while the other carries the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary whose face is covered in a black veil. The two processions meet in the same place, usually in front of the church entrance, reenacting the meeting of the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus Christ.

At the meeting point, a stage is set where a little girl is dressed up as an angel. She is lowered down from a prepared platform to unveil the image of the Virgin Mary signifying the end of her mourning period now that she has met her resurrected son.

Although only 85% of the country’s population is Catholic, the Semana Santa is observed by many as a sacred annual tradition. It serves to strengthen the bond between families and communities as they practice their beliefs and religious devotions together. Thus, this is a tradition that is close to the heart of Filipinos demonstrating how a whole country can work together for a common belief.

If you are travelling during this period to visit your relatives, your hometown or going to another town or city to experience the holy week activities, be sure to consider these packing tips. You may want to consider these eco-friendly packing tips as well.

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