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Celebrating Holy Week

Being a predominantly Christian country, Lent is an important religious event observed annually in the Philippines. It is a 40-day season that starts on Ash Wednesday and ends with Holy Week. During this period, Christians reflect on their sins and commemorate the life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday and ends with the celebration of Easter Sunday. It is a period of utmost solemnity; in olden times businesses would close for all or part of the Easter Triduum (Maundy Thursday until Black Saturday), and parents would warn their kids not to be rowdy or noisy. However, times have significantly changed and one cannot help feeling that the significance of the Lenten season has been somewhat lost on many as it increasingly becomes a routine for some and perhaps just a loud spectacle to watch for others.

So what makes Holy Week uniquely Filipino?


Literally translated as reading, but in the context of Holy Week it takes on the form of chanting.

Filipinos, especially older folks like our grandparents, read the book of the passion of the Christ with a very distinct melody. This public display of reverence to the cross usually takes all day and all night, and everyone is welcome to join. Drinking salabat (ginger tea) is very popular for during a “Pabasa” as it helps to avoid throat swelling due to continuous chanting and singing.


Palaspas (palm branches) are waved during Palm Sunday mass to mark the start of Holy Week. This is a commemoration of Christ arrival and entry into Jerusalem, days before he would be crucified; crowds of people had gathered to welcome him and waved palm branches in the air as they shouted ‘Hosanna’ which is Hebrew for ‘God saves’.

After the holy week, Filipinos usually keep the “palaspas” in their homes because this signifies suwerte (good luck). The palm leaves are replaced the following year.


Filipinos perform the senakulo, a play dramatizing the life, sufferings and death of Jesus Christ. It is taken from the Spanish word ‘cenakulo’ which literally means the upper room. In Christian tradition, the upper room is significant as it was the place where the Last Supper was held and it is the usual site where the Apostles stayed when they were in Jerusalem. In some parts of the Philippines, senakulos are held from Palm Sunday to Black Saturday.

Visita Iglesia

Visita Iglesia refers to church visitation done during Holy Week. Traditionally, Visita Iglesia was done after the Last Supper mass celebrated on Maundy Thursday evening. Nowadays it is common for people to do Visita Iglesia on any day during Holy Week.

What started out as a way to honor the Blessed Sacrament eventually turned into a form of pilgrimage as Christians visit 14 churches for each station of the Cross, or 7 churches for every two stations of the Cross, whichever is manageable.

For some it is a form of penance for sins while for others it is a way to seek God’s favor to grant a wish. For others still, it may be an opportunity to do some sightseeing while spending time with family and friends.

Seven Last Words

The Seven Last Words recounts the last words of Jesus before he died on the cross. The commemoration usually starts at noon and lasts until 3 pm which is the time Christians believe Christ died on the cross.


During Holy Week, it is common for devotees to participate in religious processions where life size statues of religious characters are paraded on carrozas (floats). Such processions would usually start and end at the church, and going around the vicinity where crowds of devotees would be waiting by the roadside or walking behind the various carrozas. Three characters that would always be present in such processions are the Tres Marias – Maria Magdalene, Maria Cleofe, and Maria Jacobe.


This Filipino version of repentance is not for the faint of heart – the sight of bloodied bodies walking the streets, carrying a cross and lashing their own backs with whips made of broken glass, nails or other sharp objects is not only controversial but is also a much-anticipated part of Holy Week. Those who choose to go through penitensiya may do it to atone for their sins or as thanksgiving for prayers granted.


Easter Sunday celebration begins at 4 am in most churches where a vigil is held to commemorate the Risen Christ meeting Mary. This is when Christians believe that Christ is alive again after having been dead since 3 pm on Good Friday.

These days, Easter Sunday is most commonly associated with an easter egg hunt. In previous times, an egg was commonly used as a symbol of rebirth, and in Christian context is associated with the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This Lenten season, no matter which part of the world you are in, taking part in these uniquely Filipino traditions and celebrations can make you feel closer to your roots and help strengthen your faith in God.

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Christmas Carols Pinoy Style

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One of the most popular Christmas traditions in the Philippines is “Carolling”. Groups of singers – from young kids with homemade instruments to professional musicians who go from house to house singing Christmas carols to spread the holiday spirit.

This usually begins at the start of the “Simbang Gabi” or “Misa de Gallo” on the 16th of December.

They often sing traditional songs such as “Sa May Bahay ang Aming Bati” (“To the Householder We Greet”), “Pasko na Naman” (“It’s Christmas Again”), “Ang Pasko ay Sumapit” (“Christmas is Here”), “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” & the cross-cultural Christmas anthem “Jingle Bells.”

The younger carollers are more creative since they use their homemade instruments, such as tambourines made from bottle tops and tin cans converted to drums. The singing would go on and on until you hand them a small change to which they will then sing “Thank you, thank you, ang babait ninyo, thank you!” (Thank you, thank you, you are very kind, thank you!”)

For the older groups, this is usually done as a fundraising activity, but unlike the children doing carolling, these are more organized visits. The carolling groups would send letters in advance to inform the homeowners of the visit. The homeowners would then prepare a simple meal to welcome the carollers.

Carolling adds a cheerful spirit to the yuletide season and is a great reminder for Filipinos that Christmas is all about fun, camaraderie, giving and sharing.

Most of these mobile carollers have spent time practicing their songs in advance. Whatever the goal is, Christmas Carolling is a wonderful showcase of the Filipino Christmas spirit.

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Christmas Lanterns at the Heart of Pinoy Culture

For Filipinos, the Parol (pronounced pah-roll) or Christmas Lantern is a quintessential symbol of the Christmas season. Its significance to Filipinos has been likened to what the Christmas tree means to the western world. Every year, the sight of Christmas lanterns adorning homes and buildings and hanging along street lamps never fails to bring a sense of anticipation and excitement!

The ubiquitous parol is replete with meaning and historical significance. With its traditional star-shaped design, it is believed to represent the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Three Wise Men to Jesus’ manger. Craftsman Francísco Estanislao, from the northern province of Pampanga in the Philippines, is widely attributed to have created the first parol made in 1908. Interestingly, there are varying accounts of the original materials used, with some claiming that it was bamboo strips covered with papel de japon (Japanese paper) and illuminated by a candle or kalburo (carbide), while others claim it was bamboo and coco cloth. Nonetheless it is likely he was inspired by the Christian traditions introduced  by the Spaniards in the Philippines in the 16th century. Such lanterns were used to light the path of those heading out to church to attend the Simbang Gabi (or Yuletide dawn masses) which begins on the 16th of December.

What was once a simple lantern made of bamboo strips and Japanese paper has evolved into more elaborate and illuminated versions that we commonly see today, the most popular of which is the capiz or seashell lantern.

Beyond its cultural significance, there are many reasons why the parol remains one of the most popular Christmas ornaments. The parol’s vibrant hues and twinkling lights perfectly represent the colorful celebration attached to the festive season; it also celebrates the skill and ingenuity of Filipino craftsmen. Painstakingly handcrafted in popular places such as Pampanga, they are made from various materials, with capiz (seashell) lanterns as one of the most popular and recognizable variety.

Since Filipinos are known to have the longest Christmas celebration in the world, these parols can be seen as early as the first day of September, all the way until January after the festival of the Epiphany. Parols give a unique vibe to homes and along the streets throughout the Christmas season.