Semana Santa is a weeklong event in commemoration of the last week of Jesus’ life on Earth, His suffering, His death, and His resurrection. Christians around the world mark the Holy Week with different rituals and traditions. Catholics practice repentance, penance, abstinence and sacrifice.
In the Philippines, the great highlight of the event is the Easter Triduum, the three days leading up to Easter Sunday. Depending on the parish and town, rituals and traditions vary. Some of the age-old traditions reflect some Spanish and Mexican influences, but the Philippines has some of the more extreme traditions especially observed among fanatics where the act of penance is practiced with mortification of the flesh to ask for forgiveness for their sins or to fulfill a panata or vow. Penitents all over the country carry wooden crosses, crawl on pavements, self-flagellate and perform actual crucifixion where they are nailed on the cross.
People all over the globe tune in to the numerous practices of devotees and penitents in the Philippines, a country known for some of the most extreme displays of religious devotion. We’ve rounded up a few places where you can witness and experience these traditions.
Pampanga is a popular destination during Holy Week because of the practice of flagellation. Visitors congregate to watch the spectacle of people lashing at their backs with whips made of broken glass, nails and other sharp objects. Maleldo is one of the most celebrated traditions in Pampanga, where the re-enactment of Christ’s crucifixion is performed annually that dates back to 1955 with the staging of the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross). Last year alone, there were 22 penitents nailed to wooden crosses in the City of San Fernando. The procession of penitents with covered faces happens during Holy Thursday and crucifixions happen on Good Friday, and these usually take place in San Pedro Cutud, San Juan and Santa Lucia all in San Fernando. Other places in Pampanga where this is practiced include Pampang in Angeles City, San Agustin in Magalang, and Telepayung in Arayat. It is a rather bloody sight to behold and not for the faint of heart.
Infanta has some of the most devout penitents practicing self-flagellation. The devotees wear a unique costume with colorful tukarol (headdress) covering their faces, mostly made of flowers and leaves and religious images, and usually in a triangular shape. The penitents also wear a saya (skirt) made of dried banana leaves. This elaborate costume is said to be a part of the penance as it lessens the macho image of the penitents. The flagellants usually start at 2:00 a.m., go to the churches to pray and then head to the river or the beach to wash themselves.
In Bataan, the Senakulo has been going around especially in Samal, Abucay and Orani for many years where the crucifixion of Christ is reenacted. Some devotees have undergone actual crucifixion with real nails but it is not the same bloody spectacle as in Pampanga. The flagellants can be seen crawling on the streets from morning ‘til afternoon and beaten by sticks. They’re usually barebacked, wearing only denim pants with their faces covered in handkerchiefs or head cloths and sometimes crowned with leaves and thorns.
In Capas, Tarlac, women called the Magdarame follow the male flagellants in a procession. These women walk barefoot, clothed in red robes while their faces are covered in black cloth and leaves. Sometimes they bring their children with them during the walk and if they can’t proceed anymore, the children will continue to do the penance. After the traditional walk alongside the male flagellants, the women pray in the chapels and then bathe with their children or their families as a symbol of sharing the blessings from their sacrifice.
Other parts of the North observe penitence and flagellation, going as far as Baler in Aurora Quezon, Cabanatuan City in Nueva Ecija, Bulacan, and even in Metro Manila. A short drive away from the City can take you to numerous bloody spectacles that mark the age-old traditions practiced by Filipino religious devotees.
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