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The Filipino Holy Week Observance

Updated on April 17, 2014


The predominantly Catholic Philippines celebrates the Holy Week prayerfully and solemnly. Maunday Thursday and Good Friday are declared national holidays so the Filipinos troop to their respective provinces to spend the long weekend with their families. The buses going to provinces are full-packed because Filipinos believe that this occasion is to be celebrated with the family, going home to parents, wives and children is a must.

The holy week celebration starts with a mass on Palm Sunday. Catholics bring to church coconut leaves called “palaspas” to be blessed by the priest. And this is one of those times when the Filipino artistry comes to fore. Filipinos bring intricately woven coconut leaves to church to commemorate Jesus Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem riding a donkey and where he was met by people carrying palm branches.

For those who do not have the talent to design such works of art, they can buy from the enterprising Filipinos who hawk their “palaspas” near the churches. After the blessing of the “palaspas” with the holy water, Filipinos hang them on their doors to ward off evil spirits or as a protection against lightning and other disasters. This, in spite of the church’s warning that the belief is nothing but plain superstition, and that the “palaspas” should not be given other meaning than a symbol of Jesus’ victorious entry to Jerusalem.

Panata and Penitensiya

The most prominent feature of holy week celebrations in the Philippines is the ritual of self-flagellation. Barefoot Filipinos marched on the streets, whipping themselves until their backs bleed. These self-torture is to reenact the torture and death of Jesus. This annual gory religious ritual is observed near the end of the Lenten season, and tourists come from around the world to watch the Filipino flagellants who cover their faces and put crowns of thorns on their heads.

To many Filipino devotees, this ritual is performed to do penance, to cleanse their sins, to cure illness, or even to be granted their wishes. They claim it is a form of worship and supplication, though this practice is discouraged by the Catholic church.

Not only that they do self-flagellation, there are those who go to the extent of having themselves crucified in an attempt to experience the sufferings, and the pain that Jesus went through. They carry a heavy wooden cross on their shoulders and walk to the place of crucifixion, just as Jesus walked to Golgotha.

When you ask a Filipino devotee why he is doing this sefl-flagellation, he would say that it is his “panata.” A panata is a vow to do something to repay a favor or a prayer that was granted by God. In gratitude for the answered prayer, the Filipino will vow to do something, and that something is his “panata.”

Most participants of this gory ritual fulfills a panata. But there are those who go through this ritual to atone for their sins. This is their “penitensiya” or a public penance. They believe that the sins they have committed during the past year shall be forgiven when they go through the sufferings and crucifixion of Jesus. And no matter how the church frowns on these practices, they continue to do this annually.

While others fulfill their panata and do their penitensiya, others choose to observe Good Friday in solemn tranquility. Radio and TV stations broadcast only religious programming or soothing music.

There are many Filipino superstitions on Good Friday. One is forbidding the children to play so they don’t injure themselves. Accordingly, when someone is wounded on a Good Friday, that wound never heals. It is also forbidden to do the laundry or bathe during Good Fridays. Children are always reminded that “God is dead” so they must behave or bad things are going to happen.

in contemporary times, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, these Filipino traditions are slowly disappearing. To many young Filipinos now, Holy Week means going to the beach.


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    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      Interesting I just watched a National Geographic video last night about alternative religions, and it included self-flagellation and discussed the meaning and psychology of it. This was interesting to read after that, great hub-- thanks for sharing, voted up!