Kwaresma is Lent. It is the season when Filipinos remember Christ’s passion (his suffering and death) and resurrection. It starts on Ash Wednesday, forty days before Easter Sunday. On this day, you will see Catholic Filipinos returning from church with ash smudged on their foreheads in the shape of a cross. If you don’t have the mark, you will be asked if you have attended Mass.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) is from Palm Sunday to Black Saturday, then Easter Sunday. It is traditionally a solemn occasion in the Philippines, a time for serious atonement.
Holy Week is when many people perform holy rites in fulfillment of a vow they made when they asked God a favor, such as a cure for an illness. Priests and religious statues are dressed in purple to symbolize gloom. Devout Catholics go to church everyday; some fast.
Palm Sunday commemorates the entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem, Filipino Catholics bring palaspas (palm fronds) to church to be blessed by the priests. Then they bring the fronds back home with them.
For most of the week, especially after Tuesday, the towns are eerily quiet with TV and radio stations going off the air and no loud noises or revelry whatsoever. Catholics stop eating meat, turning to fish, and the more devout ones go on a completely liquid diet. Many businesses are closed, so make sure you have supplies, especially food, stocked up.
The traditional pabasa (the “reading” or chanting of verses about the suffering of Christ) starts on Sunday and ends on Maundy Thursday, which is the day when the washing of the feet is celebrated.
Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion and death of Christ. On this day, you will see religious figures being carried through the towns on top of carrozas (carriages). The religious images and statues are veiled in black in mourning of the death of Jesus.
The most striking feature of Holy Week celebrations in the Philippines is the sight of Filipinos publicly whipping themselves. These are reenactments of the torture and death of Jesus. Some Filipinos not only whip their backs into a bloody mess, they also have their feet and hands nailed to a wooden cross. Tourists come from all over the world for the sight! In Manila, Tondo is the place to see these flagellants. Outside the capital, Pampanga and Nueva Ecija are famous for their flagellants who cover their faces with white cotton hoods. Crowns of thorns are placed on their heads to cause blood to drip.
Among Filipino superstitions on Good Friday is the prohibition against children playing. This is because they might injure themselves and not have their wounds heal. You will always be reminded that during this time when Jesus is dead, and so everything is awry and bad things are apt to happen.
Black Saturday is when Christ is entombed. Filipinos spend the day preparing for the night vigil leading up to Easter Sunday.
Easter Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection of Christ. At four o’clock in the morning, Filipinos do a salubong ceremony commemorating how the Virgin Mary met her son Jesus who has come back to life. Her image will be brought to the image of the Christ at the local church. Flower petals will be rained down on them. Everyone is happy that Jesus is alive again and that the world is back right. On Easter day, grocery stores re-open and you can buy food.
In contemporary times, these Philippine traditions are slowly disappearing. Young Filipinos now use the Holy Week to vacation at the beach.