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POV Philippines by Jon Joaquin

Holy Week traditions

by Jon Joaquin 

Growing up in Malabon, and near the neighbourhood church at that, I had my fair share of the traditions that Filipino communities mount during holidays and holy days. During the Christmas season in December, for example, crowds walking to the church to attend the pre-dawn mass punctuated the early mornings. The walk to the church was generally quiet, but coming home the people were a little noisier, perhaps fuelled by the sugar rush from eating all that bibingka and puto bumbong and drinking salabat or hot chocolate. Sometimes they would be singing Christmas carols or a current hit song.

All Saints’ and All Souls’ in November was also a community affair, with the roads leading to the cemetery (Did I mention we also lived near one?) closed off to traffic and people making their way to their dearly departed’s grave on foot. The path, of course, would be occupied by street vendors selling all sorts of things like food, drinks, toys, fans, and more. The last time I was there, some were even selling small USB-powered fans that you could stick to your power bank.

The one holiday that did not entail anything commercial was Holy Week, which was taken quite seriously in our neighbourhood. The whole season of Lent was generally uneventful, but come Palm Sunday, after the mass that featured everyone waving their palm fronds (called palaspas in Tagalog), everyone would be set in a sombre mood as the last days of Jesus on earth would be remembered. Since Holy Week always fell on school vacation, there would be literally nothing for us kids to do starting Monday. Our elders forbade us from playing outside, or even inside, and generally told us not to enjoy ourselves too much. I would busy myself reading because I couldn’t go out on my bicycle for fear that, as the older people warned, any wound I get that week would never heal.

And then came Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, two days we looked forward to in a macabre sort of way. On these two days, some local men would walk around the streets in a procession, shirtless and with black hoods over their heads. In their hands they held a rope on which was tied wooden sticks that they would hit their backs with. The result was a bloody mess as the sticks caused small wounds on their skin. Penitensiya, it was called, or penitence, but I suspect they actually meant penance. (Penitence is “the action of feeling or showing sorrow and regret for having done wrong,” while penance is “voluntary self-punishment inflicted as outward expression of repentance for having done wrong.”)

The men would walk slowly as neighbours line up to watch, and I remember being mesmerized by the sheer surreality of it all. We were told the men would later jump into a river where their wounds would instantly heal because it was, after all, Holy Week, and it was only later that I realized there were no rivers anywhere near our neighbourhood. Years later I would read that the Catholic Church discouraged the practice of self-flagellation, and I don’t know if it continues to this day since it is not done here in Davao City where I have lived for the past 29 years.

Another practice I haven’t encountered here in Davao is the Pabasa, the ritual non-stop chanting of the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus contained in a 16th-century epic poem called the Pasyon. Our next-door neighbours in Malabon seemed to have committed themselves to hosting this yearly, so we would be hearing the entire Pasyon for a few days. At first it was unamplified, but later on the neighbours brought in a public address system so that the entire street could hear it.

As far as I could remember there were only two tunes the chanters would use, but at one point the neighbours decided to stir things up by tapping some young people to do the pabasa. True enough the teens used newer tunes based on songs that were popular at the time, and we quite enjoyed the change from the monotony. But I think it didn’t sit well with the conservative side of the community because the next year it was back to the old tunes.

I don’t encounter these rituals in Davao City and in kind of miss them. It’s not that Davaoeños are less religious; I think it’s because the city has such a mix of religions and cultures that practices like these never really took root. But during this time of year I find myself remembering the faith that our neighbourhood exhibited and wishing I could return to those simpler times.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the original author, and do not necessarily represent those of the Pilipino Express publishers.

Jon Joaquin is the Editor-In- Chief of the Davao City-based Mindanao Daily Mirror. E-mail Jon at

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