The Fiesta in the Philippines

The Fiesta in the Philippines

Everyone here agrees Filipinos love fiestas. The word "fiesta" will bring a smile to the face of almost any Filipino. After all, a fiesta is a special time with friends, a time for fellowship, food, and lots of activities. Each year brings numerous fiestas. Sometimes people are busy for weeks preparing for them. It is surprising, how even those facing many problems in their day-to-day life set them aside and participate in the festivities.

Fiestas and Why They Occur

What actually are fiestas and why do these celebrations occur? The fiesta is of Spanish origin (the reason for the Spanish term). Spain, being a Roman Catholic country, set aside certain days to remember particular saints with processions and celebrations. When Spanish missionaries entered the Philippines during the mid-1500s, they found that the fiesta was a convenient tool to help teach Filipinos the Roman Catholic faith.

From the very beginning Spaniards brought missionaries to the Islands. The Spanish wanted to christianize the people, as well as colonize the country. The missionaries tried to attract the people, who lived in widespread areas, to the towns where there were Roman Catholic churches. Missionaries hoped and expected that people would be drawn to and participate in the colorful processions and religious dramas.

Today, there are fiestas throughout the Philippines to celebrate events in the life of Jesus and Mary, and to honor saints who lived long ago. When the Spaniards came, many communities were given names of saints. Nearly all towns have a patron saint to remember.

The last nine mornings before Christmas throngs crowd the churches for predawn masses, the misa de aguinaldo (mass of the gift). The climax comes at midnight, December 24, when at the misa de gallo (mass of the rooster) Christ's birth is celebrated. Following that, people visit their parental homes for an elaborate dinner. Here grandchildren receive money from grandparents. The next morning, December 25, is quiet. The people sleep.

The celebration of Jesus' suffering and death is a bigger event than Christmas. Filipinos normally go to mass on Ash Wednesday and receive ashes on their forehead from the officiating priest. On Palm Sunday, cleverly woven palms are bought and blessed at church, and then later brought home. Many rituals are observed as Holy Week continues. The passion story is chanted from booths temporarily constructed along the streets. In the cities some people drag heavy crosses along the road. Others walk along the streets whipping themselves to fulfill a vow to God or to do penance. On Thursday, all those who can, return to their home town. Every year on Good Friday, some individuals allow themselves to be publicly and openly crucified for some minutes. The country comes to a standstill.

On Easter morning, the meeting of Jesus and his mother, Mary, is acted out in church services and in public dramas. Yet, in the Filipino setting, the resurrection of Jesus is far less important than his suffering and death. Paradoxically, at the same time that people remember the suffering Christ, they also gather with their families to eat and drink in a festive mood. A further paradox is found in the crucifix, a cross with Christ hanging on it. The typical Protestant cross, in striking contrast is empty. It eloquently declares that Christ is risen.

Town fiestas have many faces. They usually feature a mass and a procession. Long after the religious ritual is completed, people eat, drink, and enjoy the rest of the day. Unfortunately, all too often excessive drinking mars the festivities.

Each year towns located on the sea have their own unique processions. Perhaps the most famous is the feast of Our Lady of Penafranca, in Naga City, approximately 450 kms. southeast of Manila. Here a flower-decked raft with a shrine to Mary is floated down the river. Another famous fiesta is the annual three-day festival in Obando, Bulacan, just north of Manila. The procession for this festival is particularly famous because of its special dances of childless couples, who believe that these dances will fulfill their wishes and prayers for a child. It is also said that the "lovelorn suitors" come here to pray for a wife. Young women also come to pray for a husband.

The fiesta always colorful, always accompanied by music, feasting, and Roman Catholic ritual takes an important place in a town's calendar. But where did the Philippine fiesta really have its origin? Did zealous Roman Catholic missionaries initiate this practice?

Very likely Filipinos adapted p r e -Hispanic rituals to fit Spanish Roman Catholic colonial demands. Filipinos often did this. An ancient Filipino fertility rite, for instance, probably survives in the Obando fiesta though today it passes simply for a Roman Catholic festival. The traditional dance steps seem to pre-date the arrival of Spanish missionaries. The procession of a fiesta in Laguna, southeast of Manila, includes dancers who crouch, shake their shoulders, and imitate handicapped people. It is thought the practice goes back to the distant past when handicapped people looked for healing from priestess healers.

Early in the Spanish period (1565-1898), existing folk rituals seem often to have been combined with what the missionaries were trying to teach. According to Roman Catholic scholars, after some three hundred years of Spanish presence in the Philippines, most of the pre-Spanish features of the festivals have faded. The fiestas have become Filipino Roman Catholic feasts.

Protestants and the Fiesta

One hundred years ago the first Protestant missionaries came to the Philippines. What impact did Protestantism have on the fiesta! How have Protestants responded to it? Some Filipino Protestants insist that the fiesta has become merely a social event. Relatives and townspeople meet and enjoy a holiday together. The original honoring of the saints has been largely forgotten. Some evangelical Christians, however, want nothing to do with the town fiesta. They make other plans for the day and stay far away from the festivities. Still other Protestants try to use the fiestas to keep Christian traditions alive, as did the early Roman Catholic Spaniards. The majority of evangelical Christians do not want to be part of the town fiesta as most Filipinos celebrate it. There are, however, creative ways of giving a biblical significance to the day. Some Christian families prepare food, invite guests to their homes, and use the occasion to visit together and to give thanks to God. One of the participating families often prepares leaflets with meditations and prayers of thanksgiving.

The United Church of Christ, one of the largest Protestant denominations in the Philippines, holds Reformation lectures during the month of October. In this way the church reminds its members of the meaning of the Protestant Reformation. The Christian Reformed Church in the Philippines (CRCP), a sister denomination of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, celebrates Reformation Day annually in several denominational centers. People gather for worship, singing and drama. Reminiscent of the fiesta, eating together is part of the celebration. Some CRCP congregations also observe predawn services during the nine days before Christmas. Again, worship, fellowship and breakfast together strengthen the Christian character of the event.

New Wine in Old Wine Skins?

In time, will the original purpose of the fiesta be forgotten if new meaning is poured into these days of celebration? Should Protestant Christians celebrate something other than what the townspeople celebrate in a fiesta or should they set aside such festivities altogether because they do more harm than good?

One cannot help but note that young people in North America often party enthusiastically in churches on Halloween. Reformed families in America also enjoy decorating a Christmas tree, even though Christmas trees originally were mid-winter symbols of fertility in Europe. In the missionary context another question inevitably arises: What approach should missionaries take when confronted with practices such as the fiesta? Should the cross-cultural missionary make decisions about such matters, or should new Christians themselves decide them for their own people? These questions remain for your contemplation.