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Penitensya, Salubong, Etc: Holy Week Traditions In The Philippines
PHOTO BY @nito100/iStock
  • This time of the year always reminds me of summer vacations I spent in the province of Pampanga in the mid-80s, before my teenage years. As soon as school ended, I would be counting down the days, eager to meet cousins again after a long time. Without gadgets or the internet to entertain us, the observance of Holy Week back then were much anticipated because it meant spending precious time visiting relatives whom we rarely see.   

    The observance of Holy Week in the Philippines is a strong manifestation of Filipinos' faith and affinity to religious customs. Aside from fasting and abstinence, there are many other traditions we grew up following. Especially in the province, and in Pampanga, at that, many Holy Week traditions were kept alive by the faithful who zealously attended each event. 

    As a tween, I had a very simple understanding of the celebrations that went on. Years later, my memory may be a bit hazy, but these are some of my best remembrances.

    As these traditions won't be observed this year in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, this list may help you keep alive the traditions by introducing them to your own children, too. 

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    Palm Sunday / Domingo de Ramos

    This day officially signals the start of the Holy Week. We would wake up early and troop to the Church, dressed in our Sunday best, with palm fronds (palaspas) for blessing. Going to Church in the province always meant you're bound to bump into a relative who lives next town, so be ready to "mano" (to put the hand of the elder on your forehead) every Tita, Tito, Lola and Lolo you will meet.


    Pabasa / Pasyon

    The Pasyon is a poem narrating the passion and death of Jesus Christ. During Holy Week, the faithful gather in the homes of people hosting the Pasyon to participate in the sing-song reading of the book. For some, this begins in the afternoon of Palm Sunday and goes on uninterrupted (24 hours a day, yes) until the book is finished. Some start later during the week. Either way, it never goes beyond Good Friday. 

    As with any Pinoy gathering, expect food to be abundant during a Pabasa. Steaming bowls of lelut (lugaw or rice porridge with hard-boiled egg) and an endless stream of coffee are bound to keep you awake and energetic as you belt it out on the microphone. In the stillness of the night, hearing the elderly voices singing so passionately from a distance sound haunting and comforting at the same time. 


    During Holy Week, Pampanga is strangely famous for penitents who self-flagellate on the streets or carry a wooden cross as a way to repent for their sins. On Holy Friday, people come in droves to Barrio Cutud in San Fernando to witness men being nailed willingly to the cross as a re-enactment of Jesus' death. 

    It is preceded by a cenakulo depicting Judas' betrayal for 30 pieces of silver before Jesus was captured and doomed to die. The highlight of the cenakulo is always Judas' remorse and his eventual suicide. 

    (To clarify, I only saw the cenakulo once, when I was a bit older. I was never brought to see the crucifixion ever due to their violent nature, I suppose.)

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    Washing of the feet

    On Maundy Thursday, a celebration of the Holy Mass for the Lord's Supper devotes time for the washing of the feet. For this sacred ritual, 12 men are selected to represent the disciples, while the priest symbolizes Jesus Christ. One by one, the priest washes the foot of the 12 while kneeling down on the floor. It brings to mind the event in the Bible following the Passover meal where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, signifying His humility and spirit of service which we should all follow.

    Visita Iglesia

    The practice of visiting at least seven Catholic Churches to venerate the Blessed Sacrament is widely observed not only in the provinces but also in Metro Manila. It ends up being a group activity among families and friends, whose company make traveling on foot from one Church to another seem more bearable. This is usually done on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday.

    Stations of the Cross

    On Good Friday, the faithful commemorate the death of Jesus Christ by holding the Stations of the Cross. Fourteen images depicting the suffering of Christ, from the time he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane to when he is placed in the tomb, form the stations. The faithful stop at each Station to reflect and pray. 

    Seven Last Words

    The last seven expressions Jesus uttered on the Cross before he died are referred to by Catholics as the Seven Last Words. In a Church gathering on Good Friday, priests lead the faithful to meditate and reflect on the meaning of Christ's words.


    Easter Salubong

    According to Christian faith, Christ died on Good Friday and rose again from the dead on Easter Sunday. The Salubong is a procession that begins assembly before the break of dawn on Easter to re-enacts the reunion of the risen Christ and the mourning Virgin Mary. 

    Two processions are led by the two life-sized images, with the Virgin Mary dressed in black and with a black veil covering her head, while the risen Christ has a white cloth draped over his body and a halo on his head. as the two images meet, an angel, usually a child in costume suspended on air by a harness, reaches for the Virgin Mary's veil and lifts it, signifying the end of mourning. 

    What other Catholic traditions for Holy Week can you add to the list?

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